For one week in May, the sixth annual edition of the Terracotta Festival saw a selection of films from the Far East brought to audiences in central London. The main strand was devoted to 13 of the latest ‘must-see’ releases from across Asia, while there was also a spotlight on cinema in the Philippines, and of course the infamous Terror-Cotta Horror All-Nighter, which took place at the equally notorious Prince Charles Cinema. Below, we take a look at some of the highlights from the festival.
The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)
Following the success of Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s superb Penance (2012) comes The Snow White Murder Case, the latest adaptation of a Kanae Minato bestseller. When a beautiful, popular employee at the Snow White soap company is found stabbed to death, with her corpse set on fire, local TV station worker Akahoshi (Gô Ayano) begins using social media to carry out his own investigation into the crime. As he homes in on one of the victim’s co-workers, Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue), a shy woman who has since disappeared, the amateur sleuth uncovers a series of suggestive events from her past, while TV news begins picking up the bait he’s left on his blog. Like Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case explores the circumstances surrounding the crime and its aftermath, as the combination of lies, half-truths, malicious gossip and outright hatred – fuelled by Akahoshi’s ambition – convicts the missing woman before she’s even been located by the police. Less cynical and grim than Confessions, The Snow White Murder Case is a dryly humorous film that works well as both a complex and compelling murder mystery, and as an indictment of the damage that gossip and malice can cause when combined with increasingly intrusive media networks and social media. It might not be as effective as Confessions or Penance, but it’s another respectable Kanae Minato adaptation.
Watch the trailer for The Snow White Murder Case:
Lesson of Evil (Takashi Miike, 2012)
Takashi Miike’s Lesson of Evil (a.k.a. Lesson of the Evil) has attracted comparisons with Confessions, mainly because it deals with violence in a school setting. Unlike Nakashima’s film, Lesson of Evil is a black comedy, and an extremely violent one too.
Lesson of Evil is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 29 September 2014 by Third Window Films. Special features include a two-hour-long making of and a new UK trailer.
Instead of exploring the causes or effects of violence, Miike lets us watch as teacher Seiji Hasumi – a handsome, manipulative sociopath – sees his plans and schemes go increasingly awry, forcing him to resort to ever more violent and excessive ways of dealing with the problem. Hideaki Itô makes for a convincing, even likeable monster, and the skilled Miike throws in a few bizarre touches (including some distinctly Cronenberg-esque elements) that recall his earlier films. Unfortunately, at 130 minutes, Lesson of Evil is also far too long, taking more than 90 minutes to get to its blood-drenched conclusion, losing much of the impetus built up in the first hour. The film’s final acts are certainly memorable, but would have worked better in a drastically reduced running time. Although it’s already played at a few festivals, the extreme levels of violence inflicted upon children (by a teacher, no less) will probably make Lesson of Evil a hard sell in some territories.
Watch the trailer for Lesson of Evil:
The Face Reader (Jae-rim Han, 2013)
The latest in a steady stream of sumptuous, well-mounted South Korean period dramas, The Face Reader stars Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder) as Nae-kyung, a dissolute wretch from a disgraced family, who possesses one valuable skill: as a ‘face reader’, he can assess a person’s character from their facial features. He’s extremely good at it, which attracts the attention of a local brothel keeper who holds ‘face reading’ consultations alongside her more traditional services. After Nae-kyung correctly identifies a murderer, his fame grows even further, and before long local politicians and bureaucrats are using his abilities to weed out lazy or corrupt officials from their departments. Soon, Nae-kyung becomes a well-known figure at court, but hasn’t completely understood just how dangerous his new status could be. As always, Kang-ho Song gives an easy, believable performance as the well-meaning but foolish character stumbling further out of his depth with every step. Production values are incredible and the whole film is a meticulous, attractive recreation of 15th-century Korea, boosted by another excellent score from Lee Byung-woo (A Tale of Two Sisters, Untold Scandal).
Watch the trailer for The Face Reader:
TikTik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012)
Playing out like a Pinoy version of Dog Soldiers, this energetic Philippine horror film stars Dingdong Dantes as cocky young man Makoy. When his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sonia (Lovi Poe) returns to her distant home village after a fight, Makoy follows to try and patch things up. An impromptu banquet goes awry when the inhabitants of the next village turn up, only they’re actually aswang, a kind of shape-changing demon very similar to werewolves. Trapped in their cluttered house, Makoy and the family try and fight off the aswang, while taking care of Sonia, who goes into labour at a most inconvenient time. Shot on limited sets and augmented by extensive green-screen work, TikTik is a surprisingly good-looking film, given a budget considerably smaller than similar Hollywood movies. Director Erik Matti keeps things moving consistently and makes good use of split-screen effects, but relies mainly on an engaging cast and decent dialogue. While it’s not particularly original, TikTik is well made and memorable enough to please horror fans worldwide.
Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey
By Joesph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik
Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine
By John Szpunar
Looking at Movies
By Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan
616pp. & DVD £34.99
As I compose this instalment of Cine Lit, I have wafting in the background the mellifluous tones of Miles Davis, from the superlative third box-set of Jazz on Film recordings, which this time covers the French New Wave from 1957 to 1962. Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris’s continuing labour of love in bringing us these terrifically remastered gems from vinyl obscurity is to be lauded and applauded, and, like the other two sets, receives top ratings in this column. This new addition features The Modern Jazz Quartet’s scoring of No Sun in Venice, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Les liaisons dangereuses and Des femmes disparaissent, Miles Davis with his classic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, Michel Legrand’s beautifully constructed score for Eva, Martial Solal’s unforgettable Breathless compositions and Barney Wilen’s Un témoin dans la ville. Essential and unmissable, the recordings are enhanced immeasurably by Selwyn’s well-researched and stellar accompanying text.
There have been a number of recent publications for consideration, ranging from the sublime to the (near) ridiculous. In the former category is The Film Festival Reader, a collection of essays and speculations that should be considered required reading for anyone planning to dip their toes into the relatively new cinematic waters that are forming around the academic discipline of ‘festival studies’. The editor, Dina Iordanova, has been a key player in contributing to the field as a lecturer at St. Andrews University, where in-house publisher St. Andrew’s University Press have provided considerable and commendable support to FF Studies in a similar way to that of the University of Amsterdam Press, where Marijke de Valck – another key player in FF Studies – is based. Indeed, both have contributed essays to this book, which serves as a sort of ‘state of the art’ survey of work in the area. All of the essays have been previously published in various journals and are collected together here for the first time. Rigorous, informed, challenging and thought-provoking, it puts the emphasis on the historical, sociological and anecdotal, without too much excess baggage, from the usual academic suspects such as Deleuze, Žižek, Foucault, Bourdieu et al. In short, an approachable and informative read.
Which brings me to the (near) ridiculous, and I mean this in a most approving way. Headpress – as readers of this column will be aware – are specialists in trawling (crawling!) through the transgressive and liminal spaces of cinematic geography, with a deliciously perverse approach that favours the experiential over the theoretical. Their authors are cinematic miners at the coal heap of trash, extreme and libidinous film. Two recent publications provide further evidence of this commitment, with fulsome tomes adding to this ongoing agenda of providing the reader with information about filmic texts and activities that they didn’t even know they wanted – or needed. Bleeding Skull is a geek’s bible of 1980s trash-horror films that have been recorded – very cheaply – on VHS and obsessively collected by the authors. The entries in this collection were culled from their website and these 300 reviews range from 555 to Le lac des morts vivants. The publisher has also given us the Szupnar book, Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine, which documents the diehards who introduced many of these films into the culture by way of the pre-internet, pre-blog punkish energy of the fanzine. Utilising illustrations, interviews and discussion, the book maps out the territory from Famous Monsters to Rue Morgue and to the further shores of luridness exemplified by the likes of Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. Shelve these books alongside your copies of Slimetime, Offbeat, X-Cert and Land of a Thousand Balconies.
Finally, a brief word about Looking at Movies. I met with some film student readers of ES who asked – given text book prices – what might be the best value book for a comprehensive overview of movie methods, analysis and history. The standards, of course, are Bordwell/Thompson or Cook or Giannetti – all excellent – but in terms of price, breadth, and with a very useful DVD explaining key ideas and filmmaking methods, the Barsam/Monahan is hard to beat and remains my choice. By the way, don’t let the student designation fool you, there is plenty within for all of us.
We follow up Part 1 of our Film4 FrightFest 2013 coverage with more reviews of some of the most notable films in this year’s line-up. Below, Evrim Ersoy looks back at his highlights from the programme.
Cheap Thrills (E. L. Katz, 2013)
One of the best films to grace the screen at Film4’s FrightFest, E.L. Katz’s debut feature is a heady concoction of morality tale and unrestrained thrill ride. Pat Healy plays Craig, a sometime-writer who’s down on his luck, working blue-collar jobs to make ends meet for his wife and kid. On the day he’s going to ask for a raise, Craig finds himself fired. Too depressed to head home, he stops off at a local bar only to run into Vince – a high school buddy who works as a collector for a loan shark. Before you know it, the two are having a drink, and it’s not long before they’re joined by a couple, Colin and Violet, who are out to celebrating her birthday.
How the story proceeds is half the fun in this unexpected, impossible-to-guess tale, which marries strong characters with plausible plot developments and creates its own odd, offbeat rhythm. As the stakes get raised further and further, the whole debacle becomes more and more difficult to watch – however, it is to the credit of the excellent script and brilliant direction that it’s almost impossible to tear your gaze away from the screen. Boasting perhaps the most brilliant final shot of any film this year, Cheap Thrills is an incredible opening gambit from a clearly talented and promising creative team. Do not miss it.
Watch the trailer for Cheap Thrills:
Dark Tourist (Suri Krishnamma, 2013)
Michael Cudlitz stars as Jim, the titular ‘dark tourist’ who spends his holidays visiting a serial killer’s locations, including the murder sites. However, Jim is much more than who he first seems, and as he gets closer to two women – one a waitress at the diner and the other a prostitute who occupies the room next door at his hotel – his dark nature is slowly and shockingly revealed. Suri Krishnamma’s exploration of one man’s tortured soul can be, by and large, considered a failure: although Michael Cudlitz gives a decent performance, the material itself is so weak and fractured that nothing can really save this mess of a movie.
Mistaking general stereotyping for character study, Dark Tourist goes through the clichés of every descent-into-hell study and comes up with even more hollow statements to make. Fitting every impulse neatly into black and white categories, the film is nothing more than a glorified TV movie, with perhaps some of the worst insights into human nature seen on film. All in all, there’s nothing new in the world of Hollywood’s understanding of the whys and hows of the creation of monsters – the answers are still simplistic and banal, even with the wealth of information and resources available.
Watch the trailer for Dark Tourist:
Odd Thomas (Stephen Sommers, 2013)
In the tradition of Hollywood thrillers of the 80s like The Burbs, Odd Thomas is a delightful, offbeat yet mainstream film that will be sure to please those looking for some old-school thrills. Anton Yelchin plays Odd Thomas, a short-order cook with the ability to see dead people, who uses his powers to bring killers and murderers to justice. Addison Timlin plays Stormy Llewellyn, while Willem Defoe is Chief Wyatt Porter, who knows about Odd’s powers, and helps to keep them hidden.
Stephen Sommers keeps the whole film lighter than a ball of marshmallow, while the set-pieces and special effects are impressive enough for a film clearly not made on a big budget. The central mystery is simple – for once it’s nice to see a thriller where there aren’t complicated layers after complicated layers – it’s a true Hollywood case of good guys vs. bad guys, and Odd Thomas is not a lesser film for it. Clearly trying to attract as wide an audience as possible, this is a breezy, fun-ride reminder of how good Hollywood mainstream can be when it chooses to. Delightful.
Watch the trailer for Odd Thomas:
The Last Days (David Pastor, Àlex Pastor, 2013)
Taking the typical apocalypse scenario, but putting it through one of this year’s more unique reincarnations, The Last Days is a glossy, character-driven drama with some real heart.
The time is now. Humanity develops a severe form of agoraphobia overnight, with those daring to venture outside immediately dying. Everyone is stuck exactly where they were when the illness struck, with people trying vainly to access the subway tunnels to be able to travel. Marc is an office worker who is desperate to get back to his girlfriend, who he is sure is still alive. He finds himself teaming up with new colleague Enrique, a corporate downsizing expert. The two men form an uneasy alliance, which will see them confronting the very best and worst of human nature through a fallen Barcelona.
With a threat that is almost completely internal, The Last Days eschews the usual horror of the infected or zombies for something a bit more cerebral. While the descent into unruly behaviour apes those seen in other apocalyptic films, directors David and Àlex Pastor keep the story moving quickly enough for the audience not to become irritated by these similarities. Terrific central performances from Quim Guterrez and Jose Coronado keep the audience rooting for these two everymen, who also seem to represent figures from Spain’s recent economic downturn. Only a divisive third act threatens to derail what has been an engaging series of set-pieces; however, the film is assured enough to let the audience determine the meaning of the final 20 minutes. All in all, it’s an admirable and terrific effort, definitely worth seeking out.
Watch the trailer for The Last Days:
If the first film was a tentative but flawed attempt to breathe some life into the well-worn anthology format by combining nostalgic longing and creepy storytelling, this second instalment represents a coming-of-age of the most over-the-top kind: like the unruly brother who bursts in the door at the most importunate moment, V/H/S/2 is loud, brash and brilliant.
V/H/S/2 will be released in UK cinemas by Jade Films on 14 October.
Veering from the sublime to the outrageous, V/H/S/2 is a terrific combination of talent and ambition. Most of the stories are not only technically impressive, but also combine terrifying scares with laugh-out loud moments. Without spoiling any of the storylines, suffice it say that the four segments vary from alien abductions to strange cults, with eye transplants and zombies in between. Standout segments from Gareth Evans and Jason Eisener impress and astonish in equal measure, however, the talents of other directors (especially Adam Wingard’s tender Carpenter tribute) must not be ignored. V/H/S/2 is an engaging, brilliant sequel, which deserves a huge audience to enjoy it loud and big at the cinema – an almost perfect Saturday evening film.
Watch the trailer for V/H/S/2:
Snap (Youssef Delara, Victor Teran, 2013)
Although it seems far too lazy to define a film in terms of its music, there’s no other way of explaining Snap, a psychological thriller deeply settled within a dubstep rhythm.
At first glance, the story is familiar: Jim Whitman is a shy musician who spends most of his time alone at home. When he finds himself drawn to Wendy, a social worker, and Kevin (played by the brilliant Scott Bakula), it seems that he might be able to step outside his comfort zone for the first time. However, Jim’s inner demons are not willing to let go without a fight, and the scene is set for a distraught showdown.
None of the elements are new, but it’s what the film does with them that surprises. Snap treats the audience as equals, and rather than relying on unnecessary twists to make the narrative seem interesting, it focuses instead on the characters, slowly painting portraits of lonely, isolated and damaged people thrown around by the waves of life. Jake Hoffman excels as Jim Whitman, at once charming and yet sinister, while his battle with his own psyche might be one of the better portrayals on the screen for a long while. The sound design also deserves a mention, with the loud and disruptive soundtrack affecting the very nature of the film, with the abrupt jumps and the sudden cuts adding to the overall atmosphere. This is a very assured effort from two young directors and is well worth a watch.
It was a welcome surprise to see so much diversity in the programme of this year’s Film4 FrightFest, which ranged from fun thrill ride You’re Next to sweet teen fantasy Odd Thomas, deeply affecting, horrific Spanish Civil War tale Painless to bleak serial killer study Dark Tourist, not to mention the great retrospective screenings, including the extraordinary, gut-wrenching tale of outback isolation and savagery Wake in Fright. Not everything was an unmitigated success, but there were enough ideas and oblique takes on horror tropes to keep things fresh and interesting throughout.
Dark Touch (Marina de Van, 2013)
Expectations were high for In My Skin director Marina de Van’s first English-language film. Set in Ireland, Dark Touch centres on Niamh, a troubled young girl who is terrified of the isolated countryside house where she lives with her parents and her baby brother, believing it’s alive and murderous. But even after she leaves the house following a terrible tragedy, she continues to be surrounded by violent manifestations. With clear echoes of Carrie, Dark Touch has moments of greatness, including a chilling inverted family dinner and a startlingly poetic scene of jaw-dropping horror, but its intense, resonant tale is marred by clunky dialogue and an occasionally clumsy script.
Dark Touch will be released on DVD in the UK on 13 October 2014 by Metrodome.
Watch the trailer for Dark Touch:
Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado, 2013)
Undoubtedly the richest and most accomplished film in the programme, Big Bad Wolves is the second feature by writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, and their follow-up to the excellent Rabies, the very first Israeli horror film, made in 2010. Keshales and Papushado continue their subtle exploration of their country’s mindset through the story of a suspected paedophile and murderer and the men who hunt him. Avoiding any heavy-handed allegories, the film examines a macho culture in which men think they can solve everything through violence; the complex intricacies of guilt and responsibility; and the troublingly easy role reversals between victim and persecutor. Opening with a beautiful, haunting credit sequence set to a gorgeous score, it mixes fairy tale and political subtext, black humour and disturbing subject matter with skill and assurance. An intelligent, thoughtful film that lingers long in the mind.
Big Bad Wolves will be released in UK cinemas on 6 December 2013 by Metrodome.
Watch the trailer for Big Bad Wolves:
Cannon Fodder (Eitan Gafny, 2013)
The third Israeli horror film in existence, although well-meaning, was only worth seeing as a foil to Big Bad Wolves, and as a crude representation of the exact same culture so shrewdly scrutinised in Keshales and Papushado’s film. The idea of a horror movie about an Israeli mission against Hezbollah sounded so promising. Alas, the script was dreary, the dialogue dire, the execution poor, and dumb, gun-toting heroism unquestioningly celebrated.
The Desert (Christopher Behl, 2013)
One of the great discoveries of the festival, this Argentine film was a brilliant demonstration that fresh takes on the zombie movie are possible – although maybe that’s because it is, arguably, not really one of them. After an unexplained catastrophe, Axel, Jonathan and Ana live locked up in an impenetrable house that they have armed and fortified. Completely isolated from the hostile world outside, they entirely rely on one another for physical and emotional survival. But the love that has developed between Jonathan and Ana leads to frustrations and tensions, and when Axel and Jonathan bring back a zombie to the house, their intensely close bond and the possibility of continuing their existence in this no man’s land are dangerously threatened. A wonderful, melancholy study of the poignant human need for sustained love, friendship and intimacy, and their impossibility.
Watch the trailer for The Desert:
The Borderlands (Elliot Goldner, 2013)
Rural Britain was a place of dread and mystery in two UK thrillers, The Borderlands and In Fear. 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 Borderlands 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, the supernatural manifestations, and the descent into the ancient church’s subterranean vaults, all unnervingly racked up the tension, sustained in no small part by a terrific sound design, before culminating in a startling, inventive, horrific ending.
In Fear will be released in UK cinemas on 15 November 2013 by Studiocanal.
In Fear (Jeremy Lovering, 2013)
Although it also effectively drew on moody British landscapes, In Fear was not as successful overall as its compatriot. On their way to a music festival, young couple Lucy and Tom plan to spend a romantic night at a countryside hotel. But misleading signs pointing in contradictory directions lead them in circles, and as night falls they seem unable to find their way back to the main road. Lost in an infernal maze in pitch-black darkness, they begin to believe that there is someone out there threatening them. Unbalanced by frustration, fear and paranoia, Tom and Lucy are pushed to their limits by the taunts of their invisible tormentor, and what they believe is their fight for survival. The two leads’ intense, raw performances, as well as Roly Porter and Daniel Pemberton‘s excellent soundtrack, contribute much to the atmosphere of terror. The cruel games theme, the chilly manipulation of the characters’ emotions that leads them to extreme behaviour, and the surreal set-up are all great, but the film feels too slight to sustain these, and requires a fair amount of the audience’s good will in order to work. Ultimately, the film is let down by an unsatisfactory ending that feels like a cop-out.
Watch the trailer for In Fear:
Haunter (Vincenzo Natali, 2013)
Young girls forced to face difficult situations appeared in three of this year’s films, starting with ghost story Haunter, the latest offering from Cube and Splice director Vincenzo Natali. Teenager Lisa is stuck in a temporal loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again with her family, her boredom compounded by the fact that her parents and little brother are blissfully unaware of their situation. Soon she discovers that she is not the only one caught in this plight. The idea is interesting and the plot nicely convoluted, but the film remains oddly uninvolving, possibly because its angle on the ghost story is not new.
We Are What We Are (Jim Mickle, 2013)
It was a pleasant surprise to find that the American remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 We Are What We Are is very different from the Mexican original, to the extent that it is less a remake than an entirely new film based on the same premise. Grau’s film was gritty and realistic, with a few staggeringly visceral, gruesome scenes. Through the portrait of a family of cannibals, it hinted at the brutality of survival among Mexico’s poorest, and observed the shifting family dynamics after the death of the father, mixing in intimations of incest and awakening homosexual desires.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are will be released in UK cinemas on 28 February 2014 by Entertainment One.
Jim Mickle’s version intelligently places the story within the context of American history, making the family’s cannibalism a twisted tradition going back to the hardships of their pioneer ancestors. And where in Grau’s film the men were in charge even though the women were by far the fiercest members of the family, here it is up to the delicate, pretty blond daughters to continue the tradition, under the oppressive control of their tyrannical father. Dreamy and sad, Mickle’s We Are What We Are exerts a spellbinding charm that is unfortunately broken by a jarring, unneeded, excessively grisly end.
Watch the trailer for We Are What We Are:
A couple of the shorts deserve a mention too. Dominic Brunt’s Shell Shocked set up a brilliant, tense face-off between a British and a German soldier in a bombed-out bunker. It is so rich with conflicting human emotions – wavering between fear, paranoia, careful camaraderie and survival instinct – that it doesn’t need the zombies that make a belated appearance.
Screening on the final morning of the festival, Can Evrenol’s BaskIn was an astounding assault on the senses – especially so early in the day. The film follows a team of Turkish policemen into a Satanist den, where macabre horror after macabre horror is uncovered. What makes the film so shockingly effective is the way it constantly disorientates the audience, with (what appeared to be) mutilated victims leading gory attacks and bags of body parts seemingly coming back to life, throwing both the policemen and the viewers into sweaty, panicked terror. Disturbing and nauseating in the best possible way.
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.
Horror and the Horror Film
By Bruce F. Kawin
Anthem Press 252pp Â£25
Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema
Edited by Ian Conrich
I.B. Tauris 306pp Â£14.99
Following the annual London horror extravaganza that is FrightFest, it seems appropriate to review a couple of recently published horror tomes. Making an authorial contribution to this already well-mined territory is a brave move for a writer as well a publisher – what can there really be left to say? So with this reservation in mind let’s have a look at them.
A professorial stab at finding new approaches to the horror genre is the concern of Bruce Kawin’s book, Horror and the Horror Film, which describes itself – twice in the preface alone – as a comprehensive account, as well as a ‘complete description of the horror film’. Those are bold claims indeed and sent this reviewer running to the bibliography to check texts consulted. What is there seems solid enough (if American-biased) but, given his themes, what is not there – Grant’s The Dread of Difference, Jancovich’s Horror, The Film Reader, Hawkins’s Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, Thrower’s Nightmare USA, Frayling’s Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: Science and the Cinema and, most alarmingly, Newman’s authoritative Midnight Movies (to name a few) – rather undermine claims to being comprehensive, let alone complete. That said, Kawin does explore over 350 films, first contextualising his methodology in the first part of the book and then, in the second part, examining them through a grid divided into categories of Monsters (constructed, composite, parasitic, amorphous etc.), Supernatural Monsters (demons, doubles, vampires, zombies, etc.) and, finally, Human Monsters (psychics, anomalies, mad killers, torturers etc.), all of which add up to a useful and logical approach to his topic, although he sometimes gets bogged down in classifying and clarifying the various genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that he takes as his subject. Less convincing is the all too brief (an afterthought perhaps?) final section, which takes a very cursory look at the ‘related genres’ of Horror Comedy and Horror Documentary. An interesting read and a well-handled narrative in terms of the thematic approaches invoked to wrestle these hundreds of films into the author’s theoretical categories.
Horror Zone, edited by Ian Conrich, takes a wholly different approach to the genre, looking ‘around’ the subject and introducing fresh research into the cultural/economic/technological and transgressive aspects of recent horror cinema. As the author states, ‘this book seeks to address the cinema of contemporary horror moving beyond the common approach of focusing just on the film text… the articles within… explore the cultural parameters and… the boundaries and borders that these horror productions are pushing’. The various academic essays take a catholic view of horror from theme park rides and other synergies to web-based fandom, set and costume design and relationships of horror cinema with digital viewing. In so doing, Conrich’s book provides a very eclectic and up-to-date set of original approaches to the horror genre and successfully accomplishes the exploration of ‘horror cinemas as opposed to horror film’. A recommended title with plenty of food for thought.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In keeping with the horror theme, I want to salute the work of John McCarty, who in 1986 gave us the wonderful book Psychos: Eighty Years of Mad Movies, Maniacs and Murderous Deeds. Typical of its time, it is lurid, generously illustrated (the days of lasseiz faire with regard to image usage) and downright fun both to read and to look at. He starts with the cinematic cultural roots in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper and takes us on a journey – via early cinema to the (then) contemporary screen – through fictional and factual psychos, slasher psychos, delusional psychos and exploitation psychos. In fact, as the author of the novel Psycho states on the cover of the book by way of endorsement, ‘Here at last is the definitive book about psycho films – including the psychos who write them, the psychos who direct them, and the psycho audiences who love them’. Well put! A great pairing with McCarty’s equally fab tome, Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen (1984). Save these books! JBE
FrightFest Glasgow, part of the Glasgow Film Festival, keeps growing, and this year it presented no less than 11 features, as well as shorts, exclusive teasers and special guests from all over the world.
Among the features I saw, Penumbra (2011), from Argentine directors Adrián and Ramiro García Bogliano, was a morality tale about greed. On the day of a solar eclipse, a money-loving, promiscuous businesswoman, Marga (Cristina Brondo), makes a lucrative property letting deal with a mysterious stranger, Jorge (Berta Muñiz), who is acting on behalf of a wealthy client. But to get the cash payment, Marga has to wait as Jorge’s various shady associates arrive at the apartment. Wittily choreographed ensemble scenes, together with Marga’s dealings with a hapless neighbour lean towards a farcical comedy of manners, and Jorge steals the show with a camply hysterical anticipation of his client’s arrival. The film is at its most sinister immediately after the deal between Marga and Jorge is done: in a paranoia-inducing sequence, a tramp covertly directs a stream of vicious verbal abuse; when she retaliates, she appears to overreact and is censured and shunned by the locals. A classic horror trope, this is played with dark comedy, and the comic moments are the saving grace of the film throughout. Sadly, the humour is absent from the final part, and the punchline – that the darkest forces come from within – lacks weight.
The Manetti brothers’ L’arrivo di Wang (Wang’s Arrival, 2011), largely centres on an interrogation between a gruff, increasingly aggressive secret service agent (Ennio Fantastichini) and Mr Wang (Li Yong), a Chinese-speaking extra-terrestrial who claims to come in peace but nevertheless is bound and eventually tortured for information. Gaia (Francesca Cuttica) is interpreter, witness and, ultimately, fellow captive. A film about culture, communication and prejudice, this is no District 9, but it is thought-provoking in its own way, for example managing to make an emergency call to Amnesty International absurdly comic, and generating a compelling tension mostly from the three-way conversation between the engaging leads.
Anthony DiBlasi’s Cassadaga (2011) packs in a plethora of horror devices, including a cross-dressing serial killer in a frumpy dress and a sensorially impaired (deaf) heroine who has a connection to a murder victim. It’s popcorn fun with a variety of references and genuinely spooky ghost appearances, the best moments of suspense deriving from the heroine’s Nancy Drew-like sleuthing exercises.
Extras around the billed features included The Other Side, directed by Bethanie Martin, a well-executed and atmospheric short reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, pitting the grey, factory-like lines of uniformed school pupils/office workers against visceral impulses and raw red meat. Federico Zampaglione presented seven minutes from the opening of his new film, Tulpa, in which a beautiful woman in bondage witnesses the brutal stabbing and castration of her lover – warm applause and cheers peaked as Zampaglione announced, ‘It’s a giallo!’ The Manetti brothers showed a FrightFest exclusive teaser for L’ombra dell’orco (Shadow of the Bogeyman), which they are currently editing. There was much enthusiasm from these filmmakers and FrightFest organisers about the idea that these films mark the beginning of an anticipated imminent resurgence of Italian horror. Fans should look out for these films at London’s FrightFest in August.
After the screening, I asked the Manetti brothers if genre or story comes first. There was no hesitation: for them, the story takes precedence. Marco explained: ‘Genre is a mechanism to get deep – that’s the strength of it. People think genre is superficial but it allows you to get deeper into a problem. Horror amplifies the problem. Comedy and horror are the most difficult genres because they must touch the stomach.’
A savvy audience, waiting for its stomach to be stirred, and reciprocally generous relationships between them, the festival and the filmmakers: FrightFest provides the ideal conditions for a fun exploration of genre filmmaking.
Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.
At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.
Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.
In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.
Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).
Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.
I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011’s August FrightFest.
Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?
Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.
In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?
Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.
That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!
I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.
It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.
I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.
The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?
Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!
Surviving the trappings of the horror film – both on screen and off – is an industrial rite of passage that most actresses must brave in order to establish themselves within the Hollywood mainstream, with some leading ladies successfully breaking out of the genre after a few appearances, while others remain associated with roles that require them to run around in a state of distress. Although the term ‘scream queen’ now exists in tandem with the ‘slasher’ sub-genre that was independently instigated by the surprise success of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978) and industrially validated by the saturation release of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), it actually refers to roles that have been regularly undertaken by actresses over the course of a century of commercial cinema. Gloria Stewart in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964) are three classic examples of actresses who have exhibited an independent streak while shrieking their way to stardom through genre films.
Of course, the combination of the enduring popularity of the horror genre and the increase in production due to the evolution of ancillary markets (VHS, DVD, VOD) has caused a proliferation of scream queens as actresses can make their claims for the title by starring in films that have been made at varying industrial levels and may even have bypassed the big screen altogether. The current crop of contenders for the scream queen crown includes Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris of the ‘reimagined’ Halloween (2007), but despite the benefits that come with the brand value of an established franchise, they have been unable to compete with Amber Heard of Jonathon Levine’s comparatively little-seen All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006). Heard is truly a star of the internet age in that she has achieved a considerable level of fame despite the fact that none of the films in which she has starred have made much of an impression at the box office.
As the success that Heard has achieved within the horror genre has led to comparisons with Jamie Lee Curtis, it can be argued that scream queen status is no longer entirely linked to ticket sales; Halloween was a box office phenomenon with a gross of $47 million, or $124 million when adjusted for ticket price inflation, while All the Boys Love Mandy Lane achieved more traffic on internet forums than at theatrical venues due to distribution difficulties. After being shown at such notable festivals as London FrightFest and South by Southwest, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, who planned to release the film through their genre division Dimension in 2007. An unusual teen slasher with an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and a smart final reel twist, it looked set for a profitable run. Unfortunately, a string of commercial misfires that included the expensive exploitation homage Grindhouse (2007) and the Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007) led the Weinstein Company to postpone the release of Levine’s film, then to sell the rights to fledgling distributor Senator as a means of swiftly recovering recent losses. Ironically, the financial failure of another Senator acquisition featuring Heard – Gregor Jordan’s poorly received Brett Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers (2008) – forced the company to file for bankruptcy, leaving All the Boys Love Mandy Lane on the shelf indefinitely. The film received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom through Optimum and was sent straight to DVD in other territories, but remains unseen beyond the festival circuit in the all-important North American market, with Levine’s second feature – the dark teen comedy The Wackness (2008) – entering general release while his directorial debut was in distribution limbo. With a worldwide gross of $1.7 million against a production cost of $750,000, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane has been a modest money-spinner within the realms of low-budget horror, but its lack of distribution in the United States has led it to be assigned the status of ‘buried treasure’ among American genre aficionados. Heard has since landed ‘final girl’ parts in And Soon the Darkness (2010) and The Ward (2010), while taking on proactive girlfriend duties in The Stepfather (2009) and turning up as a less-than-final girl in Zombieland (2009).
The four genre films in which Heard has appeared since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane serve to show that subtle diversity is perhaps more beneficial to the long-term career prospects of the contemporary scream queen than a box-office juggernaut. Curtis followed Halloween with such similar independent productions as Terror Train (1980) and Prom Night (1980), while 1990s scream queens Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt became stranded in the sub-standard sequel zone after their respective success with Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Heard’s biggest hit within the genre is the knowingly comedic studio production Zombieland, which grossed $75 million, although her contribution is essentially a glorified cameo (albeit a most memorable one) as the infected neighbour of reluctant zombie slayer Jesse Eisenberg. She has more screen time in The Stepfather, which is the kind of product that is typical of studio sub-division Screen Gems in that it is a remake of the 1987 thriller of the same name that tones down the subversive suburban satire of the original in favour of teen-friendly thrills.
And Soon the Darkness is another remake, although this one was independently financed, with the source material stemming from the pre-VHS era: it updates a 1970 thriller by Robert Fuest about an abduction that occurs during a cycling holiday. The more adult tone of And Soon the Darkness is maintained by The Ward, which finds Heard working with a genuine genre auteur in John Carpenter for a psychological thriller that takes place in a mental institution. The Stepfather, And Soon the Darkness and The Ward all cast Heard as a strong-willed young woman in a perilous situation, but each film exists at a different industrial level and appeals to a different aspect of the horror market, from teen audience to a more adult market and to ardent fans of an acknowledged genre master. Heard will next take a trip into action-adventure territory as an assertive waitress alongside Nicolas Cage’s vengeance-seeking motorist in Drive Angry 3D (2011), which should further expand her audience. It remains to be seen if Heard can achieve dramatic legitimacy beyond genre circles but it is evident that, despite the stifled release, Heard’s performance in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was anything but a silent scream.
And Soon the Darkness is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 7 by Optimum Home Entertainment.
This year, Film4 FrightFest presented one of its most ambitious, diverse and satisfying programmes yet. The festival cast its net wide, pulling in not just monsters, killers, zombies and hoodie tormentors, but also hippies, dreamers and misfits, exploring horror and fantastic cinema in the largest sense possible, and it was all the better for it.
Sadly, FrightFest was forced to pull A Serbian Film out of the programme after the BBFC imposed 49 cuts. The FrightFest organisers said, as their reason for the cancellation, that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’ and we entirely agree with them: the extreme imagery of the film is meant to make a political point about Serbia and any cuts would alter its effect and meaning. Of course, the short-sightedness of British censorship is notorious and long-standing, as we were reminded by a timely screening of a documentary on the ‘video nasties’, which provided a wider context for the BBFC’s latest misguided decision.
Elsewhere there was much to enjoy. Tobe Hooper was in attendance to introduce his rarely seen 1969 first feature Eggshells, a wonderfully trippy, loose document of the period and a reminder of the influence of experimental cinema on 60s and 70s horror film. Other highlights included Mexican cannibal tale We Are What We Are, harsh and tender murder story Red White and Blue, giallo reverie Amer and brutal Hong Kong property-slasher Dream Home. Below we review some of the high and low points of the festival in more detail.
I nearly gave Hatchet II a miss because of the paucity of ideas in the first instalment. Inexplicably popular, Hatchet is an unimaginative re-tread of 1980s horror films featuring a handful of stars from the genre – Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-8), Tony Todd (Candyman 1-3)and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th parts 7-9). It follows the misadventures of a boatload of tourists who visit the haunted house of a deformed boy presumed dead, only to be dispatched one by one.
In his introduction to the sequel, which premiered as the opening film of FrightFest 2010, director Adam Green assured the audience that it was much better than the original and I’m happy to report he got the formula right this time. Hatchet II is also a love letter to 80s horror, and Todd and Kane return, joined by ‘final girl’ Danielle Harris (Halloween 1-2 and 4-5) and a less annoying cast of victims who get variously disembowelled, hacked in half and turned into paté. Needless to say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish, but the deaths are so over the top, they are clearly intended as a parody of the genre.
The casual homophobia and risible, relentless titillation of the original Hatchet have been left behind and the enjoyment of the cast is obvious on screen. That said, having seen Green’s more laudable thrillers Frozen and Spiral, it is clear that the world doesn’t need a Hatchet 3. Alex Fitch
Mixing spectacular violence and a concern with the harsh realities of the Hong Kong property market, Dream Home is difficult to categorise and full of surprises. Cheng Li-sheung is a young woman working in a tedious sales job at a bank. Obsessed with buying a flat with a sea view, a much sought after and astronomically-priced commodity in Hong Kong, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream.
Dream Home works well as a slasher, featuring some very brutal and sadistically inventive dispatch methods, but also offers a provocative take on its central theme. The violence Li-sheung inflicts on her property rivals and potential neighbours, although extreme, does not feel entirely gratuitous: it appears to be an angry reaction against the greed and corruption from both the state and criminals that have priced ordinary people out of the property market. But Li-sheung herself is not quite the people’s avenger, and her ruthlessness ensures the film never falls into any facile sentimental explanations for her actions. Virginie Sélavy
Cherry Tree Lane
Cherry Tree Lane, the latest from London to Brighton and The Cottage writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, is a home invasion movie in which a middle-class couple are brutalised by a gang of hoodies lying in wait to ‘fuck up’ their son when he gets home from football practice. You can tell Williams wants Cherry Tree Lane to work on the associative level, tapping into the rich vein of suburban paranoia as mined by Lynch, the Coens and Haneke before him. The trouble is, it just doesn’t.
The naturalistic performances from the really quite excellent young cast, coupled with their characters’ prosaic reason for being there in the first place – the son is a snitch – marks them as individuals rather than representative types. With the exception of the opening shot of the house, all shots are internal. The only glimpse at a context for the film comes from TV news reports on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombings, which might suggest a general climate of fear in the UK. However, under such isolated scrutiny, terrorist to hoodie is too much of an imaginative leap to make.
So, in this instance the couple’s suburban paranoia is justified, but why are the hoodies like this? Is this just a contemporary problem, or is there something deeper about human nature at work here? Williams does not give the audience enough elements with which to speculate. Alex Pashby
Cherry Tree Lane is released in the UK on 3 September.
We Are What We Are
This Mexican cannibal film was another FrightFest selection that was not easily pigeon-holed. Gritty, realistic and slow-paced, it had the feel of an art-house movie, but was punctuated by moments of startling, grisly brutality. When the father dies, the rest of the family has to figure out how to provide for themselves. As the eldest boy, Alfredo is expected to take on that role, although he does not feel up to it. Power shifts in the group as his sister Sabina, clearly the brains of the family, makes plans, their violent brother Julian mostly messes them up, and their formidable mother struggles to assert her authority. Despite a certain lack of direction, the film presented a disturbing study of family dynamics and a chilling portrayal of those on the poorest margins of Mexican society, literally forced to eat one another. Virginie Sélavy
We Are What We Are is released in the UK on 12 November.
An experimental film with a loose plot based around the experiences of four teenage friends who share a suburban house, this is more of a ‘tone poem’ or artist’s film than an ur-slasher movie. Combining moments of comedy, science fiction, surrealism and kitchen sink drama, this is a sweet-natured portrait of the end of the ‘summer of love’ as the kids hang out together, go for walks in the park, take communal baths and throw parties.
The closest we get to horror are scenes set in a supposedly haunted basement where one of the characters has encounters with a pink light that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – which must have influenced the visual light effects in the more hallucinogenic scenes. Elsewhere, scenes where a character has a date in the park surrounded by balloons, or another attacks the group’s bubble car before setting fire to it and throwing all of the clothes he’s wearing into the conflagration, recall The Monkees as much as the darker elements of the end of the 1960s. The final scene sees the cast sucked into a prop from a science-fiction B-movie before being extruded as sludge and smoke, which, although it sounds like horror, is less horrific than many scenes from Monty Python.
Padded out by scenes of presumably improvised inane dialogue recorded at such a high level the speech is distorted into incomprehension, the film is occasionally unintelligible, soporific and obtuse, but includes enough visually stunning and memorable scenes to make it worth a watch. Comparable to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, this is an intriguing experience that suggests that outside of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper never reached his full potential as a director (or was allowed to, as there is a persistent myth that Steven Spielberg directed half of Poltergeist). Alex Fitch
F. is a very enjoyable and well-made film clearly modelled on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but takes place not in a near-empty police station, but after hours in the empty corridors and classrooms of a contemporary British college. After being attacked in his classroom and finding no support among his colleagues, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) turns to alcohol and eventual burn-out. One of his pupils is his daughter, with whom he has lost connection, and as he tries to repair this relationship while facing his other demons, he finds himself confronted by a relentless attack on the school by a group of faceless thugs and bloodthirsty killers in the guise of those folk devils du jour, the hoodies.
The cast universally contribute to the film’s success but David Schofield is especially effective and notable for his role as Anderson. While steeped in conventions and plotlines with which we are all too familiar, F. is nevertheless an interesting, clever and very watchable low-budget film, which has both relevance and panache. Definitely director Johannes Roberts’s best work to date. James B Evans
F. is released in the UK on 17 September.
A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.
This South Korean film felt like a folk or fairy tale. The story had a compelling quality but the two-dimensional characters were painted with broad strokes and the film was heavy-handed in its denunciation of the oppression of women in Korean society. It was very slow-paced for the most part, making the sudden change of tone, sadistic killings and final bloodbath all the more shocking. Virginie Sélavy
The plot of After.Life oscillates between the possibilities that Christina Ricci’s character is dead and can only be seen by a creepy funeral director played by Liam Neeson, or he’s a serial killer who has kidnapped her and is trying to convince her she’s that way. This is a relatively rare subject for cinema, as few films cover the existential experience of the recently departed – outside of the occasional zombie movie shot from the point of view of the undead, or comedies featuring ghosts (Ghost, Beetlejuice, Casper). But this isn’t new ground for TV – Dead like Me, Six Feet Under and Being Human have all had lead or reoccurring characters that are ghosts – so this film will feel familiar to fans of telefantasy – and actually might have worked better as an episode of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone.
The film toys with the necrophiliac possibilities of the plot, but is generally more interested in displaying Ricci’s naked flesh as much as possible than in considering the psychological implications of the various traumas experienced by the cast on screen. Running for nearly an hour and three-quarters, the movie outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, but convincing performances by everyone involved keeps the atmosphere reasonably unnerving. Compared to some of the more hysterically scary movies shown at Frightfest, it was refreshing to see something a little more low-key. Alex Fitch
After.Life is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 6 September by Anchor Bay.
A zombie movie set in Africa was a great idea on paper, but The Dead failed miserably to do anything interesting with it. As a horror film, it was actually boring and as slow and directionless as the shuffling undead hordes. The two central characters fighting the zombies, although both military men, were so inept they might as well have been already brain-dead. Watching Africans killing black zombies with machetes inevitably brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, but the film did absolutely nothing with this. In fact, there was something slightly patronising and Western about the film’s approach to Africa, from stereotypical details such as a preposterous witch doctor to the fact that the main character was a white American. The end was not only a cop-out but it was also nauseatingly sentimental. Virginie Sélavy
Isle of Dogs
American director Tammi Sutton (Killjoy 2, Welcome to Graveland) elected to come to the UK to shoot this screenplay penned by Sean Hogan (Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business) and therein lies the first problem with the film – what should have been at times a subtle, British Ortonesque black humour at work in the script becomes in this director’s hands obvious, over-the-top gags, which muddy the tone of the film. What she evidently thought were clever post-modern references recede into triteness and near-camp.
The film concerns itself with Darius (Andrew Howard), a criminal gang boss and psychotic bastard who is married to a Russian former prostitute, Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova). While heaping physical and verbal abuse upon her, he comes to learn that she has been sleeping with Riley (Edward Hogg) and determines to seek revenge. He offers Riley one way out – kill Nadia or be killed. Thus commences the orgy of killing that will occur during the evening.
This is a story about the lengths to which humans will go to survive and contains some neat plot twists and sharp dialogue – that is when the dialogue can be discerned – which brings me to the second and biggest problem with this film. Someone in post-production clearly went mad with the audio levels. The cacophony of sounds that bludgeon the viewer – and oftentimes the script – into aural submission serve only to undermine specificities of dialogue and mood. This bombastic and unrelenting John Zorn-like score is really quite unbearable as well as irritating. When the director revealed that it was a showcase for the music of her boyfriend it became clear: Isle of Dogs served partly as a lengthy horror pop-promo for him. A shame because as mentioned, there is a much subtler film here waiting to get out from underneath the wall of sound. James B Evans
Red White and Blue
Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news.
This was one of the best films in the festival, unpredictable and complex, sweet and gruesome, moving without being sentimental, with fully rounded characters who, although they were capable of the most terrible acts, were neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Virginie Sélavy
The Last Exorcism
Coming from the production stable of Hostel director Eli Roth, the closing film of the festival, predictably, has its fair share of moments to be labelled ‘not for the squeamish’. Director Daniel Stamm similarly took the mockumentary format into macabre territory with his 2008 feature debut, A Necessary Death, which claimed to follow the final preparations of a suicidal volunteer. Under his hand, The Last Exorcism is clearly as comfortable manipulating its audience’s emotions as it is manipulating its own generic format. As with The Blair Witch Project, however, one can’t help but feel that, were you to strip away the shaky cam conceit of the frame, you’d be left with a remarkably formulaic script. That is not to say it is not grimly effective.
In the end, perhaps the most consistently disturbing feature of this film is not the apparently psychotic teenage girl, or the demon that is supposed to be possessing her, but her control-freak fundamentalist father. And it is in the light of this that The Last Exorcism is very much an Exorcist for our times. Robert Barry