Emma Jane Unsworth was born in Prestwich and lives in Manchester. She has a tattoo of one of the big metal lions that resides outside Heaton Park on her arm and a Betty Trask award for her debut novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything. Her second novel, the visceral and vulnerable Animals (the title comes from a Frank O’Hara poem) has been described as ‘Withnail with girls’. It heads out on the town with hedonistic Laura and Tyler as they riotously down shots, take drugs, ponder poetry and physics, art and religion and do their level best to defy the strictures of polite society. It is therefore maybe not entirely surprising that Emma should choose the murderous Tina from Sightseers as her filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
Gawky, ginger, immature, sadistic… Really there was no competition when it came to selecting my cinematic alter ago. It had to be Tina from Sightseers. Released in 2012, Ben Wheatley’s dark British comedy sees Steve Oram playing Chris, a caravan fan, who takes his new girlfriend, Tina (Alice Lowe), on a road trip round Northern England to showcase his favourite tourist spots. It’s no walk in the park. The holiday quickly escalates into a bloody rampage, provoked initially by Chris’s fury at a man dropping a Cornetto wrapper on the floor in a tram museum. Oh come on, we all know what it’s like – sometimes the smallest things can tip you over the edge. Besides, it’s important to respect your heritage and the environment. People have to learn…
Pot pourri fetishist Tina is, it would seem, overwhelmed by the world even before she hits the road with Chris. Aged 34, she lives at home with her mother, a megalomaniacal whinger grieving the loss of the family pet terrier, Poppy. For Tina, the caravan holiday with Chris signifies both an escape from depressing daughterly responsibility, and tardily won sexual liberty. The landscape they traverse – the rolling hills, the winding roads, the wide open sky – is the proverbial wilderness, fraught with possibility and peril. Especially when Tina gets out her crotchless knitted underwear. Very Viz. But before long the playful observational comedy becomes an ominous counterpoint to brutality. We enter a nightmarish moral hinterland as the couple indulge (Tina albeit reluctantly) in a full-blown killing spree and find themselves on the run. Like a less sexy Bonnie and Clyde. In a caravan.
There’s a timelessness as well as a lawlessness to Sightseers. It could easily be set in the 60s, 70s or 80s without changing a frame. Tina is no everywoman, though. She is a constant, excruciating surprise. I love this film because it’s absurd, and dark, and funny. Also because I’m interested in social disobedience; in people operating on the outskirts of what’s considered acceptable, and the animalistic urges within human nature that can leave you out on a limb. Also because I’m obsessed with campervans and have set my third novel in one. Caravans and campervans offer a strange mix of adventure and domesticity. I mean, really, what kind of maniac wants to live in what is essentially a Wendy House on wheels? Well, this kind of maniac. And Tina. It beats being at home with her mother.
Animals is out now with Canongate (£12.99). More information on Emma Jane Unsworth can be found on emmajaneunsworth.com.
Cast: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Luke Neal
Rural Britain is a place of dread and mystery in Elliot Goldner’s debut feature The Borderlands. Following two priests and a technology expert (the inimitable Ben Wheatley-favourite Robin Hill, star of Down Terrace), who are sent by the Vatican to an isolated country church to investigate reports of ‘miraculous’ activity, the film begins in starkly realistic mode before weaving an increasingly disquieting, creepy atmosphere around its characters. The unhinged local priest, the sinister villagers, a sickening incident outside the investigators’ house, an eerie walk through the fields at night, supernatural manifestations, and the descent into the ancient church’s subterranean vaults, all unnervingly rack up the tension, sustained in no small part by terrific sound design, before culminating in a startling, inventive, horrific ending.
Producer Jennifer Handorf talked to Virginie Sélavy about the merits of filming in a bat-infested church and refraining from having a full-on Lovecraftian ending.
Virginie Sélavy: The film has a great sense of the moody, ominous British countryside in the tradition of The Wicker Man. There has been a resurgence of the British rural-horror genre in recent years, with Ben Wheatley’s films, and most recently In Fear. Did you consciously try to make the film fit this sub-genre?
Jennifer Handorf: No, we didn’t. And weirdly it was one of the only things that wasn’t prescriptive about the film. It was made with distribution in mind, in partnership with Metrodome. So they had things that they wanted us to include, like the found footage, the church, the Vatican – that was the brief. The rural element seemed to work for the story, but it wasn’t preconceived. And as we were developing the film, the local youths became more important. But we had lots of meetings where we said, ‘We don’t want them to be the creepy Wicker Man villagers’. So we were not even really aware that we were falling within that genre until after the fact, although we were conscious about many other things. Obviously we’ve got Rob Hill, who’s in Down Terrace, which is one of Ben Wheatley’s films, and he edited Kill List, so we were wary of coming off as copying anyone, but I think the film just naturally fell into that sub-genre.
How did you decide on the location?
Initially the director had thought about shooting at Brent Tor, which is down in Devon, on Dartmoor. But it’s tiny, it’s about the size of a shoebox, so it’s completely impractical to film in. So I was set with the task of looking at 15 to 20 churches that had the elements we needed, with a bell tower, that were on a hill, and were quite remote. When Elliot walked into West Ogwell Church in the south west, he said it was the only one that felt creepy – the other ones felt quite joyous. And I think there’s a very practical reason for that: there’s a native bat population living in the church. You not only get these strange noises of the bats fleeting around, but they also go to the bathroom wherever they are, so you get this sort of green mould all over the walls – it’s a bit gross, but I think that the strangeness and the colouration and the mouldiness and the sounds in the rafters – the life that was inherently in the building – is what made it that much scarier.
The Borderlands is released on DVD by Metrodome on 7 April 2014.
It feels like the church is a presence in itself in the film.
It really is. A lot of that is the sound design. Martin Pavey, who is Ben Wheatley’s sound designer, did it all, he’s an incredible artist. He added a lot of life to the church, with creaking rafters, and wind, adding things to make it a proper character in the film.
Were there any real creepy stories or legends about the church? What’s its history?
It was built in the 13th century, but the interesting thing we discovered is that it was likely built on a former druid site of worship, which is relevant in the film. The fact that it’s on a hill and that there are oak trees to the south is in keeping with their sites. And the church was built during the era when the druid sites were being taken over and their gods being done away with by Christianity. There were also some amazing folktales about nearby graveyards, like the possible origin story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. When this horrible local magistrate died they buried him in an above-ground mausoleum and they put iron bars around it so that he couldn’t get out. Supposedly if you go and say the right incantations on a full moon or something, his dogs will rise and chase you out of the graveyard. It actually burned down because some immature Satanists lit lots of candles and set fire to it in the 80s.
Found footage is a very popular sub-genre in horror at the moment. Were you wary of not re-treading ground? How did you approach it?
Absolutely. Strangely enough, it was one of the few things that was part of the brief initially, and when the film was finished, the sub-genre had become so passé that the distributor was begging us to distance ourselves from it in any way possible. So even at script stage, we were dead set on there being a firm justification for why the characters were filming, and how they were doing it. And that’s where the head-cams came from: they weren’t holding them, they were actually mounted to their heads. So they don’t drop them when they get scared. They’re not even aware of where they’re pointing the camera at sometimes, because it’s just their head movements. We even surveyed our friends and other film fanatics about what they hated the most in found footage, and a lot of the time we just got back: ‘Everything, why would you bother? It’s a dead genre.’ So it was exciting that people responded really well to our treatment. And, of course, in the edit it created a world of problems, because you don’t have a master shot, and cutting just on-head cameras can become quite difficult. While we were filming we were very aware of that, so we would make a character look somewhere so we could catch something on the camera. It was all very stringently planned, and very carefully considered throughout the process. If you put the work in and you’re really conscientious with the way you do things, it doesn’t have to be lazy, it doesn’t have to be a throwaway choice.
What do you think the technique brings to the film? How different would the story be if it’d been filmed as a conventional narrative?
Thematically, the idea of whether or not you can believe what you see, and the truth of the image, was a big thing. We realised in the process that it really suited the story, because if we’d filmed it straight, then if we showed you a string or a trick, you would think that it was shonky filmmaking, or you would think that it was obvious that we were showing you a trick. But if you do that with found footage the audience thinks, ‘Did I see a string, was that the movie or was that this guy faking it?’ All that stuff fits the genre better – the questioning of the image, the questioning of whether you can believe your eyes, really suited it thematically.
Watch the trailer:
There are a couple of particularly creepy, unsettling scenes, like the one where Father Deacon walks through the fields in the dark, and the scene in which some local youths gruesomely tease the priests.
I think the reason why those scenes work is because of what you can’t see. I’m a big believer in ‘Don’t show, imagine!’ You never properly see the youths until they get their comeuppance. And that really works because, in the light of day, they are these harmless kids, but at night, when you wonder who they are, what they are – and we keep them faceless until that point – your mind wanders to a very dark place if you allow it. And with Father Deacon walking around at night, again, he’s the character whose eyes are playing tricks on him, or he thinks his eyes are playing tricks on him. And I think we’re all used to that sensation of being somewhere dark, and suddenly the hairs on your neck stand up and you start to wonder, ‘What was that, what’s that sound, what’s that shape?’ and despite the fact that you know you’re alone, and you know there’s nothing sinister, your mind creates all these narratives. It’s also a lot about the sound design, because you’re informed by what you’re hearing, as you can’t see anything. So you can hear something but you can’t match it with what you’re seeing, and that’s very unsettling.
The relationship between Robin Hill’s jolly techie character Gray and Gordon Kennedy’s tormented priest Father Deacon is one of the great pleasures of the film.
It really is. The film wouldn’t be what it is without the chemistry that exists between those two. There are a lot of scenes that are straight improv from the two of them. When they’re looking at the map and picking out the different places, Gordon, who is a comedian, and has written comedy, is actually being forced to play the straight man by Rob, who won’t let him be serious for a minute. They’re a real treat.
One of the interesting things about the story is that it’s about priests who have a remarkable lack of faith in the miraculous, when you think that their whole belief system is based on just that.
Exactly. I come from a very religious part of America and I grew up surrounded by people who had tremendous faith, and for me it never made sense. But hearing those people talk about it as fact, they clearly get great comfort from it, it’s a big part of their lives. And then you look at the Catholic Church as an institution and you realise that not everybody within that institution has to have that absolute faith, as long as they act as faithful men – that’s all that really matters, a lot of it is politics. So it was really interesting to explore that. The character of Father Mark is meant to be by the book, he follows the rules, and then it’s revealed that he’s the one with the least amount of faith. And he makes this point: ‘Am I not a good man? Do I not follow the teachings of Jesus? Why do I have to believe in magic to be a good Christian?’ I found myself asking that a lot when I was a kid, and it was interesting to see it treated in the script. Then you have Father Deacon, who is someone who started off with a really strong faith, but through experiences in his life has learned that man’s inhumanity to man surpasses miracles. So he’s had it beaten out of him, where Father Mark never believed in it. It was a vital part of the film. Funnily enough, we’ve had a really bad reception from Italy because they think we’ve portrayed the Church as too nice, we haven’t made the priests sinister enough. So I’d quite like to see the Italian remake of this!
[SPOILER ALERT Stop reading if you don’t want to know anything at all about the ending.]
The ending is fantastic. Without revealing too much, what was the idea behind it?
Initially the ending was a lot more explicit, a lot more Lovecraftian. And it became one of those wonderful evolutions: because of the way you’re making a film there are restrictions put on you, and you can’t do what you initially intended, so you’ve got to come up with another solution. Keeping things a bit more subtle, having the guys just walk into it, showing that all they had to do was turn around and walk out, but they don’t, because they wanted that proof, because they needed to see it, and eventually they do, but the price they pay for that is obviously quite large.
To mark the UK Blu-ray release of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Daniel Bird looks at the genre implications which stem from the film.
In 1996, I met the writer and musician Stephen Thrower at a programme of Jess Franco films at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, London. Thrower was the editor of Eyeball, a fanzine celebrating art and exploitation in European cinema (although in the last few issues Thrower expanded his horizon globally). Eyeball was designed to mimic the layout of the defunct Monthly Film Bulletin. With wit and intelligence, Thrower (along with the likes of Pete Tombs) mapped out a zone of convergence between European high art and more low-brow tastes (genre film, comic books, pornography, etc.). In Eyeball, a review of Godard’s Pierrot le fou would rub shoulders with a reappraisal of Franco’s Virgin among the Living Dead – and why not? Ado Kyrou flagged up the ‘sublime’ moments to be found in ‘bad’ films. Franco made lots of bad films (so has Godard). Thrower was particularly keen on Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) – a film that was, at the time, pretty much loathed all round. In short, its ‘artiness’ pissed off the horror crowd, while the monster and copious blood-letting excluded it from the prissy gaze of the ‘art house’ set. Thrower, however, loved it, and had no qualms about dedicating the last issue of Eyeball to Żuławski.
In spring 1997, Thrower and I travelled to Paris to interview Żuławski. Szamanka had opened in France and was about to close. It was only playing in one cinema in Saint Michel, and the reviews plastered outside the foyer made for an entertaining read. Libération urged anyone who saw ?u?awski approaching a movie camera to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Szamanka did not disappoint: it offered an unhinged performance by a beautiful unknown, and bruising social comment (not to mention cannibalism and nuclear war). Żuławski was admirably intransigent during the interview, rubbishing Terry Gilliam’s Fisher King, Ken Loach’s social realist camera set-ups while proposing that if Martians land on earth then they should be made to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ‘because they might learn something about what it is to be human’. That is not, however, to suggest ?u?awski was a ‘fan’ of genre cinema – on the contrary. Anything that adhered to a ‘formula’ (ironic or otherwise) clearly bored him senseless. It reminded me of an interview Thrower conducted with Alejandro Jodorowsky around the time of the UK release of Santa Sangre. Jodorowsky said that, for him, the horror film was the only genre in which film poetry could still exist. Similarly, David Cronenberg asserted that he was not interested in gore, but rather imagery that could only be shown in the horror genre – like the tumour firing ‘cancer gun’ in Videodrome (Cronenberg, it seems, has gone back on this stance in favour of middle-class respectability). One of the things that impressed me the most about Possession was how Żuławski did not ‘suggest’ the monster (as Polanski did in Rosemary’s Baby), but rather showed it in its slimy, tentacled glory.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the French magazine Starfix asked a number of directors to list their films of the 1980s. Żuławski’s list included:
All That Jazz
Fanny and Alexander
Two trends can be discerned: first, take The Shining, The Thing and Blade Runner – three films that were marketed as genre films, but whose beauty, initial commercial failure and current ‘classic’ status rest in the fact that they are – like Possession – anything but formulaic; second, All That Jazz, Fanny and Alexander and Platoon are rooted in personal experience – but in each case Fosse, Bergman and Stone take what could have been mere memoir material to the realm of cinema. All That Jazz and Fanny and Alexander are not just honest and painful – they are also fantastic and, in the case of Platoon, hallucinatory. Żuławski’s list is of films that, like his own, all in some way ‘pierce reality’.
I have no problem with the word ‘genre’. Genre just means category. The novel is a genre, as distinct from poetry. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about how the ‘novel genre’ was rooted in banter, gossip and jokes of the market place as opposed to the sombre, authority of, say, a church sermon. By the same logic, a feature film is a genre in itself, period. However, when the ‘tropes’ that define that category become prescriptive, then the result is familiarity, boredom and apathy. Another Russian, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too (see Ben Wheatley’s ‘horror’ films – Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England). Take The Thing – the Howard Hawks original is a respected, but ultimately hokey ‘man in a suit’ affair. In Carpenter’s version, however, all bets were off: anything could be the thing; we, as viewers, had to readjust to this – the result was something very disturbing indeed. In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else. Let us not forget that Bergman also turned to the fantastic (The Hour of the Wolf – a film that would make a great double bill with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The monster in Possession (like the thing in Carpenter’s film) is incredibly poetic in the sense that it conjures up intense emotions through imagery – not unlike Kafka’s cockroach in his short story, ‘The Metamorphosis’.
Kafka frequently wrote stories about animals, but Disney is never going to pick up the rights from the Max Brod estate. The problem, for me, begins with the culture of ‘pitching’ ideas. Frederic Tuten, the co-writer of Possession, once told me an anecdote about a friend who was commissioned to write a script for ‘Jaws in Venice’. Tuten said that while the idea is ridiculous – the juxtaposition of those two elements – a killer shark and urban canals – conjures up an idea that can be, above all else, sold. The problem with such pitches is that they are often reductive and restrictive. Yes, Anna Karenina is ‘about a woman who is unfaithful’ – but it is also so much more. Similarly, Possession is not just ‘about a woman who fucks an octopus’. To pigeonhole Possession as a genre film is to go into the film wearing blinkers. Genre elements are often a disguise, like masks worn during a carnival (see Dostoevsky – whose stories all feature ‘crimes’ but could in no way be confused with episodes of C.S.I. – although it might be interesting to see Crime and Punishment in the style of C.S.I. , just as The Idiot could easily be recast as a love triangle between a geek, a jock and a cheerleader). To only see the mask and not sense what the mask is hiding is to lose out on what makes a film special. The ‘genre mask’ in itself is not interesting. Rather, it is a prop in the game of cinema, which itself is a reflection on life.
Possession is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 29 July 2013.
Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated follow-up to Kill List, is a comedic character study starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as a freshly in love couple who are setting out on a road trip across the north of England, which turns into something unexpectedly darker and fatally dangerous for anyone who dares to spoil their twisted idyll.
Pamela Jahn met up with the director at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May to talk about exploring the British countryside, romance and how women are sometimes the better killers.
Pamela Jahn: Sightseers is very extreme, like Down Terrace and Kill List, but feels more open and lighter.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, one of the major attractions to the story for me was to get out and explore some of the broader space of England, but also in terms of cinematic space… Sightseers is much more about figures and landscapes rather than just faces in frames.
And there is more humour.
Basically, I wanted to make a comedy after Kill List, because on the one hand, if I had made another horror film, everyone would have said I am a horror filmmaker forever and that would have been bad. The door would have just been shut and locked. We also felt depressed after Kill List, because it was just so horrible and it was such a hard film to make and to edit and to be involved in. And then you get this thing when you watch a film back, and you think, oh, well, I could have made anything, and I made this. Why did I do this? [laughs] So we thought, let’s just make something that feels lighter and happier, and more fun. And the other reason why we wanted to make this film is because we wanted to do something that is much more playful and loose. We knew that the movies coming up after this are going to be much more technical and difficult, so we wanted to be able to play a little more here.
The violence is still pretty shocking in places.
Yeah, but it’s not that shocking. Like Kill List wasn’t that violent, I mean not really. It’s just that you feel it because of the emotional kick, but physically and in terms of body count, it’s not that bad.
The script was co-written by the stars of the film, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Does it still feel very close to you though?
Amy Jump, who is credited with additional material, is my wife, and she co-wrote Kill List and edited on Sightseers as well. We restructured it a bit from their script and took things on board that we had learned from doing the two previous movies. So this way, we brought it into the family of the previous films. We also did the editing, and there is so much improvisation in it. There is actually a level of authorship that goes on top of the script, which comes purely from us.
There’s a line that seems to run through your films, that somehow refers to the extreme, or the animalistic in human nature. What is it that fascinates you so much about that?
Talking about England – but it’s the same in all of Europe, actually – it feels to me that there’ve always been layers of reality. Beneath the pavement is the earth, and there have been all sorts of things happening here for over thousands and thousands of years, and it’s all in us. And this is what we’re trying to show in these movies, that it is only a step to the left or the right and you find this stuff… Things aren’t as modern as we think.
What is it that attracted you in particular to this couple and their story?
When I first read the script and got to know the characters, what struck me was that they’re crossing over the boundaries of society, they’re not held back by modern manners. In a way, I could have been in the film, except I wouldn’t murder anyone, but I’d probably go back to the caravan, crunching my teeth, thinking ‘gggrrrrr’. And I think there is something about watching people who actually go through to the very end and break social rules and do it.
But it’s also that kind of strange story about a couple who are throwing at each other what they like and what they don’t like. First, he shows her his darkest side, and then she can do it much better than he can, and that’s really depressing for him. So he’s crushed. I like that… For me that’s quite romantic.
Are women the better killers?
In this one, yeah, absolutely! But I don’t think she speaks for all women [laughs].
You don’t seem to be worried that people might take your films the wrong way and actually be inspired by them.
It doesn’t end well for them, so I don’t know… And I made Kill List. Jesus, if I was worried about that, I would have stopped there.
Did the success of Kill List come as a big surprise to you?
Yes, it did. But I don’t know how you’re supposed to react when that happens. You can’t really think about it, because it just chains you from doing anything else. And you can’t take any of it seriously, because if you did, you’d take yourself too seriously and that’s a disaster – it totally inhibits how you work. So I just say ‘thank you very much’ and move on. And although you can pretend that you’ve got a plan, you just end up making the films you make. This is the only way I know how to do things. In retrospect, you could look at the movies and probably slot them in and go, ‘oh it’s a bit like this and a bit like that’. But they’re never conceived like that.
Do you feel there is something particularly British about your characters or your films?
In Britain, it’s like everywhere, there are people who are very meek and there are people who are just really, really violent. You wouldn’t want to stagger around drunk on a Saturday night in a seaside town in Britain without your wits about you. And I guess there are still people shooting pheasants with shotguns somewhere, things like that.
What’s your favourite killing scene in Sightseers?
I really like Ian’s death, mainly because I like the parallel editing, you see lots of things happening at the same time, and cut to the music – I really enjoy those sequences. And we’re trying to make each of them different, but then use certain elements again for her murders and his murders.
Is there something you think you consciously have to do, or not do, if you want to be a good director?
I don’t know…But when I became an editor that ruined everything. So once you know how to edit, you’re fucked.
Have you ever been on a caravan trip yourself?
I have been camping a lot, but not in a caravan, no. And I don’t know if I will now, after sitting with a camera in the toilet of that caravan with a monitor on my lap. The caravan thing might be over for me.
Now in its 45th year, Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia once again turned a small corner of Spain’s Costa Brava into a mecca for genre fans. Creating perhaps what is the most comprehensive and detailed snapshot of horror, fantasy and science fiction in 2012, the festival featured over 200 movies as well as retrospective screenings, star introductions, masterclasses and much, much more.
Blessed with balmy October weather, this quaint little town in Spain played host to some of this year’s most anticipated titles from directors such as Dario Argento, Rob Zombie and Joko Anwar. Below are some of the high and low points of the festival.
Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2012)
Ben Wheatley continues his ascent with this fantastic comedic character study starring the fantastic Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Beginning with two slightly awkward new lovers embarking on a road trip and warping into something unexpectedly darker, Sightseers is continuing proof that Ben Wheatley is one of the finest directors working in the British industry right now. Special mention must go to the script, written by the leads, which is so astutely observed and full of brilliant character moments that it is destined to join the ranks of British classics of the decade. Add a killer soundtrack and you have one of the definitive films of 2012. A must-see.
Sightseers is released in the UK by StudioCanal on 30 November 2012.
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)
A quiet, reflective comedy drama, Robot & Frank features a terrific central performance from Frank Langella as well as able support from reliable performers such as Susan Sarandon, Jeremy Sisto, Liv Tyler and James Marsden. Set in the near future, where robots have become everyday tools, Robot & Frank focuses on Frank, a retired cat burglar who is slowly succumbing to dementia. When his son brings a medical robot to take care of him, Frank is resistant at first. However, slowly but surely a bond begins to emerge, culminating in in Frank’s desire to do one last job. Lightly wearing its science-fiction elements, Robot & Frank is a low-key marvel of emotion; human, gentle and humorous, this is a film that rewards investment in its characters and creates a believable, well-crafted world.
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)
Juan Antonio Bayona, the talented director of The Orphanage (2007), returns with The Impossible, a well-made but somewhat overwrought drama focusing on a family trying to survive the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Eyes firmly on an Oscar nomination, Naomi Watts gives her all as the matriarch of the family, who is determined to survive until she is sure her son will not be left alone, while Ewan McGregor portrays the sturdy father of the family with just the right amount of pathos. However, the real bulk of the acting plaudits must fall on the three children ably portrayed by Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. With meticulous performances, the three kids manage to strike almost no false notes. As impressive and emotionally engaging as The Impossible is, high-strung Hollywood melodrama derails the film more than once. The most poignant points in the film are the low-key moments but a desire to constantly hammer home the tragedy means most of the mood is generated by effusive violins and sentimental string-pulling.
Modus Anomali (Joko Anwar, 2012)
Joko Anwar is one of the most talented genre directors right now. The fact that he is working in Indonesia – a country where horror cinema is generally not very innovative – makes this achievement doubly impressive. Although never blessed with the high budgets that most US productions get, Anwar’s films regularly display inventiveness and intellect, which is sorely lacking in the rest of the genre. With Modus Anomali, Anwar worked with an even smaller budget, turning out a truly indie feature, and the result is all the more remarkable. Focusing on John Evans, an amnesiac who wakes up buried alive, Modus Anomali tells the story of his attempts to find and rescue his family from the hands of an unidentified maniac. Largely shot on shaky cameras, but always allowing the audience to see what is happening, the film is a clever puzzle that will divide audiences. Suffice it to say that those who get on board will find themselves amply rewarded as Modus Anomali has been thoroughly thought-out and will stand up to repeated viewing. All in all, a remarkable achievement and further proof that Joko Anwar is headed for great things.
Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)
One of the most upsetting and uncompromising films ever to come out of India, Miss Lovely tells the story of two brothers working in the seedy underbelly of Indian exploitation cinema in the 1980s. Blessed with stellar performances from all involved, the film depicts the inhabitants of the world the brothers live in: financiers, gangsters, club owners and, of course, the performers. The roster of characters seems to come from a human cesspit. With all morality corrupted and all human goodness sapped, these are brilliantly engaging monsters, all consuming each other in a desire to get to the top. It is a sad, melancholic and destructive portrait of a scene unfamiliar to most Western audiences. Never once compromising its raw emotional brutality during its running time of less than two hours, Miss Lovely builds to a climax that grabs you by the throat and does not let go until you are completely choking. Guaranteed to remain with you for months after the film ends, Miss Lovely represents a new step for Indian independent cinema that is to be encouraged, applauded and, most importantly, shown to audiences.
The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, 2012)
Rob Zombie creates what might be the worst and yet most entertaining film of the century. For the most part, The Lords of Salem plays like some misguided homage to John Carpenter, recreating some of unforgettable shots from The Fog (1980), until the final third becomes an LSD trip of exaggerated proportions with some of the craziest imagery known to mankind since Alejandro Jodorowsky made El Topo (1970). It is a ham-fisted attempt by Zombie to create something cerebral, which, instead, is more like an expensive Christmas panto for which there is no justification. Grand in its mediocrity, The Lords Of Salem is a recommended to anyone who wants to discover the madness of the witches of Salem. By the time the final quarter rolls, you will be aghast at the madness of the imagery with which Mr Zombie decides to bombard the audience.
Come out and Play (Makinov, 2012)
A retelling of the 70s classic Who Can Kill A Child?, Come out and Play is a lacklustre, almost shot-for-shot remake that goes nowhere. Lacking in atmosphere and suffering from a hysterical performance from one of its leads, this handsomely shot film will only impress those who have never seen the brutal, sun-soaked images of the original. Perhaps the best part of this disappointing exercise is the lovely credits and the fact that the film gets dedicated to the martyrs of Stalingrad at the very end.
Yellow (Ryan Haysom, 2012)
A special mention must go to Yellow, a neo-giallo short that has been doing the festival rounds for a while. An astute tribute as well as a clever updating, Yellow is a promising start for a clearly talented team, including director Ryan Haysom, cinematographer Jon Britt, composer Anton Maiof and production manager Catherine Morawitz. Perhaps the only problem with Yellow is a desire to over-explain the narrative; the film works incredibly well as a mood piece and an unnecessary plot development late in the film somewhat undermines its impact. However, this is a minor complaint in a piece that is clearly head-and-shoulders above most of the shorts produced today.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews