Tag Archives: horror film

Ban This Sick Filth: Interview with Jake West and Marc Morris

Cover art for Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two

Format: DVD

Release date: 14 July 2014

Distributor: Nucleus Films

Directors: various

UK 2014

840 mins

Nucleus Films have just released a three-disc follow-up to Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, comprising two discs of introductions and trailers to all of the seized and destroyed films under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, and a substantial new documentary directed by Jake West and produced by Marc Morris. Video Nasties: Draconian Days 1984-1999 details the years after the immediate implementation of the Video Recordings Act, through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure as head of the BBFC, when his unilateral introduction of the R18 classification and the effective legalisation of hardcore porn embarrassed and irritated the government into demanding his resignation. The irony inherent in Ferman’s fate, brought low by such a liberal gesture after a reign characterised by secrecy, snobbishness and censorship is not lost on many of the talking heads West and Morris have assembled. He was a hate figure for many horror fans irritated beyond measure by the death by a thousand cuts inflicted upon film after film, often because filmmakers had included one or more of the elements that Ferman seemed oddly obsessed with: power tools and throwing stars, drugs and nun-chakus. He refused certificates to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, left Straw Dogs in limbo and actually reordered a scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to his liking.

For all that, he wasn’t the simplistic censorian that some of his critics clearly want him to be. He was a clear head during the media flaps over Michael Ryan’s Hungerford massacre and the Jamie Bulger killing and their supposed connections to video violence, and saw off the idiotic crusade by MP David Alton, which would have removed from cinema any characters who weren’t good role models for children. The documentary takes you back to strange times when a piece of middling franchise landfill like Child’s Play 3 was treated like the very work of Satan himself, and know–nothing MPs and news reporters spouted fluent horseshit about the easy availability of actual snuff films to your children. It also documents a hitherto forgotten social scene of horror obsessives trying to track down and distribute all the stuff the BBFC and DPP had tried to remove from the public’s eager gaze, risking imprisonment to smuggle those precious video reels of Cannibal Ferox back from Amsterdam… The gleeful impression given by Draconian Days is that the video nasties that were supposed to turn the nation’s youth into sociopaths actually did something far worse: they turned them into filmmakers and writers. And the state’s reaction to the panic gave a couple of generations their first lesson in civil disobedience: the authorities are idiots.

Mark Stafford met up with Jake West and Marc Morris of Nucleus Films to talk about throwing-stars-obsessed censors, home-made nunchakus and hiding Blood Sucking Freaks under the bath.

Mark Stafford: I was one of those kids who didn’t have access to a VCR during the first years of the video nasty phenomenon, so I spent a lot of my youth with my sweaty little nose pressed up against the video library window imagining what these films were. Draconian Days has actually cleared up a few weird half memories for me – that cover to Pigs was fuzzily lodged in there somewhere.

Marc Morris: ‘Pigs eat anything, including evidence’.

I fnally know what that thing was. The film deals with a fascinating period and a character, James Ferman, who gives the film its backbone. Jake, you’re off camera, what’s your take on him?

JW: He’s fascinating because he’s contradictory. He was a filmmaker himself, and a highly intelligent, articulate intellectual.

MM: He had to balance the scales between the press, the government, the law.

JW: To begin with, he was quite idealistic. When he started at the BBFC, he got in censors who were highly educated and quite sceptical about censorship. But as far as videos were concerned they had to make up the rules as they went along.

MM: The idea being that because the VCR was in the home, different rules applied.

JW: And what emerged were Ferman’s own views and peccadillos, which then started to guide policy. The outcome of that, as Carol Topolski (former BBFC Examiner) reveals, is that he started to lose the plot, he got drunk on his own power.

MM: Like everyone says, it was his own fiefdom.

JW: It became clear that at the end of the day he was setting the agenda and policy. The fact was that he was altering the BBFC minutes, and other controlling behaviour. But he stood up against David Alton, and was instrumental in making sure that law didn’t happen.

MM: He had to stand up for the BBFC’s decisions, say that they’d already certified Child’s Play 3 and the like, and government couldn’t just come in and undermine him, say that they now weren’t suitable for viewing in the home.

JW: I think it was very important, as a filmmaker, to not just do a hatchet job on James Ferman. It would be very easy to just condemn him, but he’s a more nuanced character than that. Thankfully we got a brilliant archive interview with him. I really wanted to give him a big presence in the documentary. He was a man who shaped that era, and part of what was funny and what was tragic about it came out of that as well. His continual over-insistence in cutting horror films is what led to the emergence of the underground horror scene, and us all being here to talk about it now. He created the environment that made horror fans want to become criminals because we couldn’t stand what the BBFC sold us.

MM: You’d read about a film in Fangoria or wherever and hire it out and ‘fuck!’ all the good scenes were cut. What were you going to do? Try to find an uncut version.

JW: And they ended up criminalising everyone because they wanted to get hold of these versions. It was all a lot of fun until people genuinely started getting arrested and prosecuted.

There’s an interesting parallel with the 50s anti-comics crusade and the later underground cartoonists. Artists like S. Clay Wilson said that it wasn’t just the EC comics being an influence in themselves, but the fact that they were taken away by the powers that be that led them to fill their own work with as much depravity as they could muster. You’ve got Alex Chandon (director of Inbred) in your film saying more or less the same thing – filmmaking as a kind of hardcore punk gesture.

JW: That’s what happened with all of us. We were influenced by the very things we were told we weren’t allowed to watch. It created a whole generation, two whole generations of people who were deliberately bucking that.

Watch the trailer for Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:

I’ve always thought that the censors’ obsession with the idea that kids would watch the nasty scenes over and over again and turn into serial killers…

JW: ‘They’ll freak out in their bed sitting rooms.’ That terrible classist view that Ferman had. He thought that there were some very disturbed people out there, he had this real fear of some sort of social disorder being created by films. And there was no real proof that that ever happened. But when the media purported that it did happen, in the Bulger and Michael Ryan cases, he firmly spoke out against that idea because he knew that those acts weren’t created by film. They criminalised the wrong people. Horror fans were the people who got affected by all this panic, like with Marc.

MM: Hiding my videos under the bath. You had to undo these chrome domes, then undo the screws, pull the side of the bath off and shove all the tapes under there, put the panel back… And then every time somebody said ‘can you do me a copy of Blood Sucking Freaks?’ you had to undo it all again. It was a pain in the arse. But if you left it undone you’d be scared that they’d come round and find all these depraved movies.

JW: There was a point in the 90s where raids on collectors were happening on a daily basis.

MM: You’d get a phone call saying that there were probably going to be some raids next week. It was either hide it under the bath or take it round a friends or a girlfriend’s house.

JW: Then you split up with your girlfriend and she ended up destroying your tapes.

MM: Smashing them up with a hammer.

JW: Now there’s a form of censorship!

I was on the side of all that. I moved to London in 1990 and began going to the Scala obsessively. I still didn’t have a VCR…

JW: The Scala was like the ultimate video collection anyway. And in better quality. They were heady times. You had all these energies, with the film festivals and the fanzines, in the pre-internet world of communication. People had a great sense of social grouping because of that. And that’s the side of the story that was positive, it did bring a lot of people together in interesting ways. So many people have friendships now because of that.

MM: People used to watch films in groups, have nights just watching movies.

I miss that. Now, if you mention a film you think’s interesting everybody’s watching it 10 minutes later. There’s no need to go round somebody else’s house.

JW: There’s no sense of discovery, of somebody finally getting hold of something.

MM: I remember somebody finally getting a copy of Men behind the Sun on VHS from Hong Kong. We all watched it, like… ‘Fucking hell!’ It was an original tape but the quality wasn’t very good, it was odd, VHS gave everything an even grimmer look.

The BBFC’s obsession with throwing stars and power tools seemed kind of odd. They were obsessed with ‘imitable behaviour’, but how many people in the annals of actual crime have ever been killed with a chainsaw?

JW: It was always absurd, this idea. Of course a power tool is a dangerous object but you can’t uninvent the object by not showing it.

MM: Any weapon is an imitable weapon. Any sword, any bottle, any fist. Do you reach a point where you say ‘we can’t show this because people might use fists to hit people’? It’s a cycle of stupidity to believe that there’s going to be a spate of throwing star murders because of a film.

Everybody in my metalwork class was making them. That was why we were doing metalwork.

MM: I made nunchakus out of broom handles. Of course anybody who made their own nunchakus quickly realised that they were going to do more damage to themselves than anybody else.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre IFS
Poster artwork for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Over and over again in the intros to the Section 3 films the commentators are trying to understand why this or that particular film got seized.

JW: That’s because the Section 3 films weren’t prosecuted, they were just seized by the police and destroyed. You’re just left wondering as to what it was about these movies that led to them getting seized in the first place.

It’s funny watching Kim Newman talking about Final Exam, this tedious late entry stalk and slash effort, being utterly bewildered that anybody would find anything in it to be offended by and remember enough about it to complain. Did you try to interview any plod that were involved at the time, anyone who did the actual seizing?

JW: In the first documentary we interviewed Peter Kruger, who was head of the Obscene Publications Squad, but in the second film we didn’t interview any police. I don’t think they would have spoken, and I don’t think they would have known much. The reason these films got seized by the police is that they didn’t understand what horror films were. So any film that just sounded like a film that got seized in the past, a Driller Killer or a Zombie Holocaust, they would think, ‘well that’s the same thing’. There was no internet back then, no way of checking what these films were. So the police would just go by the back of the box: ‘oh, he’s got his eye gouged out, that’s offensive, we’ll seize it.’ It was as random as that really. (1)

In Draconian Days James Ferman comes across as complicated but David Alton seems just like an absolute screaming idiot.

JW: I think David Alton is a lot like Graham Bright from the first film. Graham Bright has not changed his views one iota since the 80s when he put the Video Recordings Act through. Alton was a right-wing Christian and a political agenda. Spreading the idea that Child’s Play 3 was destroying society was just politically expedient to get a large following of voters and newspapers on his side to further his own agenda, which seems quite transparent when you look at it now. You can always learn how stupid moral panics are by looking at one that happened previously. The format that they play out is always the same thing. Somebody in power gets offended and decides that nobody should gets to see something because they don’t like it.

There was a little ripple a few years back. I remember walking into a newsagents and seeing a tabloid headline trying to whip up fury about the fact that a lot of the DPP’s list were now emerging again on DVD, but the hysteria just didn’t take. Nobody cared.

JW: It’s a lot harder for them to do that. Back in those days, if you were a fan you had no outlet. Unless you were published or could get on television and your views were broadcastable, you weren’t represented by anyone. Now with the internet you have a platform. So the situation has changed, you can’t scapegoat something on that level because people will come forwards to defend it.

Also, back then a tabloid could grossly distort the nature of a film and people would believe it. Nowadays people can check stuff out for themselves and see that the tabloid version is bullshit. ‘Hey!’ this film isn’t evil, it’s just stupid!’ Where are the censorship flashpoints of the future for you?

JW: The internet. The internet is being more and more controlled in a very subtle way. It’s not the hammer blow of ‘Video is Evil!’ There are things like Cameron’s porn block and parental filtering going on that you don’t necessarily know about.

MM: People watching what you’re looking up, everything logged somewhere by search engines.

There was that TED talk where the head of Netflix, who had lots of left-wing friends and lots of right-wing friends, got them to type the word ‘Egypt’ into Google during the Arab Spring and take screen shots of the results. The left-wingers all had headlines about the uprising on the first page, the right-wingers all had adverts for holidays, with the news stories only turning up on page two… And this isn’t some definitive conspiracy by some Bond Villain, it’s just algorithms, cookies, bits of code shaping how you see the world.

JW: The internet is a Pandora’s box of problems. You want to keep it free for people to use, but all this information being gathered by people who could use it against you is a worry.

So what’s next? Is this your last documentary on all of this?

JW: We don’t have a plan to continue the video nasties story. We only made the second one because we realised there was more to tell. But beyond the Ferman years things got a lot more relaxed. There were still problems but there weren’t big scares, that era is over, which is good. Draconian Days was a surprise to us, that people wanted more, and it took us two years because it was a labour of love.

MM: And Nucleus will be putting out more stuff, more trailer compilations, like Grindhouse Trailer Classics 4. (2)

Watch the trailer for Grindhouse Trailers 4:

By coincidence I’ve recently come across the first one, so together with Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two I have subjected myself to a hell of a lot of concentrated filth over one weekend.

MM: We have depraved and corrupted you.

It was only my lack of power tools that stopped me going on a kill crazy rampage.

MM: We’re lucky you don’t own any, with your background in film viewing you could only be a danger to society.

Interview by Mark Stafford

1 In the first documentary, which I bought and devoured after this interview, seizures of Dolly Parton’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One by clueless coppers are reported. Sam Fuller’s film presumably because its title suggested something to some copper’s filthy dirty mind.

2 Of which what can one say that it features the expected lively mix of blaxploitation, sexploitation, Euro sleaze, horror and kung fu promos all screaming for your attention. Fans of nipples won’t be disappointed. Additional enjoyment can be gleaned charting the career trajectories of the stars popping up in the likes of Strange Shadows in an Empty Room or The Late Great Planet Earth (Martin Landau! Orson Welles!). Or wondering whether Stuart Whitman fired his agent after Las Vegas Lady. Maybe you’d expect Karen Black, Warren Oates, Eli Wallach and Ray Milland to pop up in this sort of stuff, but Christopher Plummer in The Pyx? Sir John Mills in A Black Veil for Lisa?! What happened there? Possibly the same 1970s drugs that led to Monkee Mickey Dolenz tearing up the screen in Dirty Dan’s Women. Prize for best tagline: ‘If it’s hot she’s got a hand in it, or on it’ from Too Hot to Handle, though Sacred Knives of Vengeance’s ‘a masterpiece of martial arts kung fu karate’ does have the virtue of covering the bases.

Jaume Balaguero: From the supernatural to twisted reality

Sleep Tight

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 March 2013

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Jaume Balagueró

Writer: Alberto Marini

Original title: Mientras duermes

Cast: Luis Tosar, Marta Etura, Alberto San Juan

Spain 2011

102 mins

Lacking the market influence of the major Hollywood studios, for much of its existence the modern Spanish horror film has been overshadowed by its contemporaries. Generally regarded favourably by both fans and critics, Spain’s genre output includes several genuine classics like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) – the most successful Spanish horror film ever made – and the Guillermo del Toro-produced hit The Orphanage (2007), as well as a number of cult favourites and a great many competent but lesser efforts. With leading lights Amenábar and del Toro moving on to other things – Amenábar away from horror entirely (with The Sea Inside, 2004, and Agora, 2009) and del Toro on his twin path between big-budget studio pictures (Blade 2, 2002) and smaller, intensely personal Spanish-language films like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – it was left to Catalan director Jaume Balagueró to carry the standard for the contemporary Spanish horror scene.

By the time he released his most successful film, [Rec] (2007), Balagueró was already a key figure in the Spanish genre, thanks to his acclaimed debut feature, The Nameless (1998). That success boded well for his future, but his attempts to move into the world of international horror have been dogged by problems. Despite its critical applause, The Nameless would not be released in the USA until 2005, when it was dumped direct to video. Balagueró’s English-language follow-up, Darkness (2002), was heavily (and somewhat pointlessly) trimmed before receiving a half-hearted theatrical release in the US in 2004. His next film, Fragile (2005) starred Calista Flockhart, but sat on a shelf for five years. By the time it finally appeared, any international interest in the film had long since dissipated. Both films are stylish, atmospheric ghost stories that should have an audience, not least of all because of their casts: Darkness starred Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal), Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) and Lena Olin (Alias), while Fragile featured Richard Roxburgh (Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Elena Anaya, who was also in Van Helsing.

Following these setbacks, it’s not entirely surprising that Balagueró returned to Spain – and to the Spanish language – for his next project, an instalment in the Films to Keep You Awake (Películas para no dormir) series. Mainly funded by Filmax, the company most heavily associated with Spanish horror, and overseen by genre legend Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, the series brought in six well-known directors, including Balagueró, Paco Plaza and &#193lex de la Iglesia, with each one handling a single episode of roughly 60 minutes in length. Balagueró’s contribution, To Let (Para entrar a vivir, 2006), is one of the finest in the series, but unlike his previous films, he downplays the supernatural, atmospheric angle in favour of brutal violence and nerve-shredding tension. The film’s central characters, a young couple in search of a new apartment, find themselves at the mercy of an insane landlady who has decided they would be the perfect tenants for her crumbling old block of flats, whether they like it or not. Their would-be neighbours are already home, chained and gagged in their maggot-ridden kitchens or filthy bathrooms in a twisted version of domestic bliss. Following To Let, Balagueró delved further into the world of explicit violence with the hectic, blood-drenched [Rec] and its 2009 follow-up, [Rec] 2, both co-directed by Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Like Cloverfield (2008) and George Romero’s lacklustre Diary of the Dead (2007), Balagueró and Plaza took the ‘found footage’ approach, with the handheld cameras lending the already frantic material another shot of adrenaline. Following [Rec] 2, Balagueró and Plaza decided to direct separate sequels, the first of which – Plaza’s [Rec] 3: Genesis – was released in 2012. Balagueró’s contribution, [Rec]: Apocalypse, is scheduled to appear in 2013.

Released in Spain in late 2011, Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes) is Balagueró’s sixth feature film, and the first he hasn’t at least co-written himself. This time the script was prepared entirely by Alberto Marini, a Filmax executive who has worked with Balagueró on most of his films, as ‘director’s creative assistant’ (Darkness), story editor (Fragile), co-writer (To Let) or co-executive producer on the [Rec] movies. The film centres on César, played by Luis Tosar, a concierge and building manager obsessed with one of the tenants, Clara, an attractive young woman whose sunny disposition provides a sharp contrast with the unstable, chronically unhappy doorman. Ever since he took up the position, César has been sending her a steady stream of offensive, threatening letters, texts and e-mails. As she continues to rise above his torments, César goes even further, until things begin to slip out of his control.

Like To Let and the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight abandons the supernatural elements that appear in his first three feature movies (The Nameless avoids the overtly supernatural, but still takes place in a world haunted by ghosts with sinister cults attempting to summon an evil messiah figure). By removing the infected zombies of [Rec], Balagueró has moved even closer to a realistic world, although admittedly it’s one populated with twisted individuals like César and the landlady from To Let, who is another variation on the twisted parental figures that appear in Balagueró’s earlier films. It’s difficult to view César as one of those, but it’s probably not a coincidence that these characters do very similar jobs. César is one of the hundreds of faceless employees that most people don’t notice as they go through their lives, whether they’re taxi drivers or cleaners. Some of the building’s tenants – most obviously Clara – will stop and chat to talk to him, but most of them simply ignore him. Even the one tenant who complains endlessly about César has no idea of what he’s really like, content to dismiss him as another lazy employee. It’s this attitude that allows him to go largely unnoticed, even when the police are in the building and apparently closing in on their suspect. It helps that César is skilled at masking his true personality, appearing to be a friendly, helpful man. Thankfully, Luis Tosar (Cell 211) is more than up to the task, changing between genial and malevolent with remarkable fluidity but never slipping into a scenery-chewing caricature.

Foregoing the frenzied rush of the [Rec] films, Sleep Tight is deliberately paced, with Balagueró ramping up the tension carefully, concentrating on atmosphere rather than adrenaline. It’s an approach that works well, and the film is every bit as compelling and uncomfortable as The Nameless, a film it resembles somewhat. Some recent Spanish horror offerings – The Orphanage being the most obvious example – have featured cathartic, emotional conclusions, but it’s good to see that Balagueró has (with the exception of Fragile) managed to resist that trend, turning in an appropriately downbeat resolution.

Jim Harper

Citadel: Interview with Ciaran Foy


Format: DVD (Region 1) + VOD

Release date: 29 January 2013

Distributor: Mongrel Media

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 March 2013

Distributor: Revolver

Format: DVD (Region 2)

Release date: 4 March 2013

Distributor: Revolver

Director: Ciaran Foy

Writer: Ciaran Foy

Cast: Aneurin Barnard, James Cosmo, Wunmi Mosaku, Jake Wilson

Ireland 2012

84 mins

I always wondered if I would be able to offer safety and protection to those I love if confronted with the need to choose physical violence. Being an ex-cop/ex-athlete’s son, I received plenty of dirty pugilistic tactics in those halcyon days when folks didn’t bat an eye over playground scuffles. I eventually put Dad’s counsel to use on a particularly vile bully. It worked so well that my opponent’s face was exquisitely rearranged and from that point on, nobody, I mean NOBODY ever bothered me again. I knew I was able to employ similar techniques if it ever happened again and went through life with no worries. But that’s ME. What could/would happen if I needed to protect someone else? Could/would I be able to do it again? Would it be different? Worse yet, what if I was not able to deliver the goods? That’s very scary. That, I can assure you and this, I believe, is a key element permeating Ciaran Foy’s stunning feature film Citadel.

Read the review of Citadel.

As an adult, I encountered an especially dangerous situation. After an extended sojourn across the Atlantic, I returned to discover my apartment had been burgled. It was an easy place to burgle, but unexpected since my beloved and I lived in a ‘protected’ building. Bikers and dealers lived there and as such, was one of the safest places for anyone to live (save for the potential of being caught in crossfire which, thankfully, never happened). But, burgled we most certainly were. The immediate concern was twofold. Whoever did it wasn’t especially concerned about the ‘protected’ aspect of the building and might well have been completely insane (we lived round the corner from an outpatient clinic specializing in emotionally challenged mental defectives), or, worse, the perp was a junkie (most of whom wouldn’t be stupid enough to hit a ‘protected’ domicile). This was someone who simply didn’t give a rat’s ass. They must be feared at all costs. One must be prepared to do whatever it takes to stop them in their tracks.

Worst of all, I had the gnawing feeling that the psycho would return.

Each night I’d rest easy with a baseball bat beside me and, sure enough, soon after the burglary and in the pitch of black, I heard a huge crashing sound. Lo and behold, a dark figure stood at the foot of the bed. Springing into action, I grabbed the bat and threatened to crush the whacko’s noggin like a watermelon. As quickly as he appeared, he disappeared.

A funny thing happened after this incident. My initial exhilaration immediately transformed into complete and total terror when thoughts of what could have happened had I remained asleep or if, God forbid, I tussled with the fucker and screwed up. And here’s the rub – my fear had nothing to do with what could have happened to ME. It had everything to do with what might have happened to my wife. Scenarios danced through my brain and I became so paralyzed with fear that I insisted we move in with friends until we could pack up and move as pronto as possible.

The worry and fear I experienced over this has only multiplied exponentially now that I’m a father. Could I? Would I? Damn straight! I’d be a take-no-prisoners pit bull if either my wife or daughter needed my protection. No fear in that at all. It’s the other fear, the one that cuts deep. That’s the fear none of us want to feel.

The greatest fear, they say, is fear itself and now, my fear boils down to this: What if I failed to protect? What would the consequences be? Not to me, per se – I don’t give a shit about ME, I care only about protecting those I love. How would this fear transform itself in the aftermath of FAILURE to deliver protection? These are very real things we all, to varying degrees, must deal with. They also happen to be the very things that drive Citadel, one of the best films of the year.

I’ve been blessed to see the movie a few times now and after my first helping, I’m equally blessed to have had a chance, via Skype, to interview its talented writer-director, Ciaran Foy.

Klymkiw: I was so lucky to see Citadel on a big screen at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. For me, it’s definitely a Big Screen experience and even though so many independent genre films get relatively modest big screen exposure at festivals and in limited theatrical runs for an eventually larger life on the small screen via DVD, VOD, etc., I can’t help but assume you crafted the picture with Big Screen at the forefront.

Foy: That’s very true. I think especially so in terms of the soundscape. Sound was an important big screen element when you’re going into a 5.1 sound mix.

Yes, the aural landscape, if you will, is alternately subtle and jarring, but it seems to me that your visual design always felt bigger than life and yet, in so doing, captured life and reality so much more powerfully than many similar genre films.

Yes, we had a fairly extended series of preparatory discussions about the aspect ratio and at first I was thinking in terms of the aesthetic and practical pros and cons between a 2:35 landscape or something closer to 1:85. Trying to capture Tommy’s agoraphobia was a big part of this and my initial feeling was to go wider. At the same time, I really wanted to build in much longer, more extended takes to capture Tommy’s condition. However, working within modest means you begin to realize that cinemascope-styled frames need more lights, more art direction, and that extended shots take longer to plan and shoot, especially with actors getting their marks and so on. We eventually settled on the 16:9 aspect ratio.

And of course, planning within exigencies of production doesn’t have to mean compromise, but actually allows you to use your palette in ways that are far more effective in terms of capturing what you wanted in the first place.

Yes, and though to capture agoraphobia the feeling was to go wider, I eventually agreed with my cinematographer that it was best to choose wide angle lenses and often shoot close up, using a claustrophobic approach to capture Tommy’s terror and heighten it for the audience.

Yes, even the wider exteriors felt like Tommy was boxed in amongst all those endless towers in the housing project he wanders through.

I also loved punching in close on Tommy and using the camera to allow us to be staring directly at the fear in his eyes.

The film affected me on so many different personal levels and as such, almost by extension, I couldn’t help but feel that the film was deeply personal. Did it come from something very close to you?

I tend to describe Citadel as 50% psychological horror and 50% autobiography. When I was a teen I was the victim of a vicious unprovoked attack by some young thugs in Dublin after seeing a movie. I was beaten repeatedly on the head with a hammer and threatened with a dirty syringe. The attack left me with this condition of being agoraphobic. My battles with it, my recovery and my love for genre films are all things that eventually led to Citadel. I should say that the project had a somewhat more straightforward genre incarnation, but as I discussed it with people we’d invariably get around to where it was coming from and they’d say, ‘Oh, why don’t you tell that story.’

The horror in your picture, especially the stuff with Tommy dealing with his fear, kept forcing me forward to literally move to the edge of my seat, lean forward and thrust my point of view ever closer into the image.

I always wanted to present an extreme version of a subjective experience and as I wanted to put the audience in the mind of an agoraphobic, I think I was forced – to do anything like this, really, you are forced – to do so within the realms of genre. To put an audience into the very state of being an agoraphobic, I think that fantastical genre films work best because agoraphobia itself puts you in a state that’s just so irrational. It’s an irrational fear because you’re seeing things in the shadows that aren’t there and hearing things that aren’t there, so what I wanted to do was make sure that everything was witnessed from Tommy’s point of view. In fact, I never cut to an angle that Tommy couldn’t see.

Yeah, when I first wrote about the film, I’d only seen it once and was sure of that, but for some reason, not 100% sure.

Well I broke that rule once because I figured that if I didn’t show what happens to a particular character, everyone would think he was going to come back at the end.

I’m totally crazy about Aneurin’s performance as Tommy. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, really – you captured so many great shots of him inhabiting the role so totally that I even remember his body language in those seemingly endless shots of Tommy pushing the baby carriage through the projects.

Yes, I’ll always remember young fathers pushing baby carriages in the working class neighbourhood I grew up in. This is why it was so important to cast someone very young – someone in his late teens or very early twenties. The problem with that, though, is so many actors in that age range are so extroverted, confident and good-looking that many of them have a hard time carrying themselves the way they need to since they themselves haven’t had times in their lives to experience failure.

So how did you guys work together? How did he prepare?

Well, as it turns out, Aneurin had similar experiences as a teen with constantly being bullied, so he understood Tommy very well in addition to attending group sessions specifically with agoraphobics. It was great, really. Aneurin and I had developed a short hand about things like what would be going through your mind if you were anxious or paranoid.

I recently talked to William Friedkin about the intensity of the performances in Killer Joe (2011). He went into a lot of detail about using sense memory with his actors, and I’m like, ‘Whoa!’. Sense memory is, to my way of thinking, potentially a dangerous place to go – even for professional actors. Then again, ‘Danger’ is Friedkin’s middle name. You and Aneurin, on the other hand, had some mega-sense-memory going on – so much so that it’s in body language where it really pays off.

When I was in film school I was lucky to have access to a counsellor. One thing I’ll always remember is when she talked about body language. She said that when you’re scared, your body says you’re scared, but if you walk through the worst area imaginable and look like you know where you’re going, the thugs, the street predators don’t see you. What they see is fear. I remembered that and thought, so what if there was a creature that was blind, but could see fear? That was the original predator I sketched out in the early versions of the story. That’s what really began that weird fusion of escapist films I love, the iconography and the experience I grew up with.

Well, it takes a lot – and I mean a lot to scare me when I’m watching horror movies. The constant tension inherent in both the mise en scène and the performances contributed to a movie that frankly scared the living shit out of me.

I do think that the entire shoot contributed to that also. The shooting was chaotic. Locations would be lost at the last minute and new ones found that I’d not even seen before going on set – everyone was anxious. There was not a lot of time to do many takes and we had to do everything possible to keep up the pace of shooting five pages a day. In the mornings, we’d all be in the zone – a totally paranoid state because none of us ever had time to get down from it. The tension was there morning, noon and night. It really affected everything. The thing that was scaring me to death was continuity. Shooting in Glasgow, snow fell when we least expected it. We’d shot a good chunk with no snow, but luckily we were at a point where it was relatively easy to come up with the notion that it snows overnight while Tommy is sleeping. Oh, and with all the snow – Glasgow is a hilly city and often the ice made it useless to get the trucks to some of the locations.

I can understand the positive effect this would have in terms of capturing what you needed to, but how do you practically get through all this?

Your crutch is your storyboard and it’s always your storyboard that gives you this sense of confidence that if you shoot what’s on the page it will make sense in the edit. When certain locations became inaccessible and we had to change them, I’d often have to throw storyboards out of the window and that was scary. When I started to see the rushes, it was a great boost to my self-confidence.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with many filmmakers who do use storyboards and just the process of creating them and knowing all the shots needed to piece the film together effectively was always helpful when they invariably needed to be tossed. Storyboards are springboards you can use to launch yourself into uncharted territory.

Absolutely, even throwing them away, they still had a use. I remember thinking about Citadel as being a dark, twisted version of Dumbo (1941) with Tommy as our baby elephant who meets a mentor character who gives him a feather, a placebo, and it’s a crutch. Furthermore, even for myself as a director, I’d use the character of Tommy as that feather and the storyboards have a similar placebo effect. I held them so close to my chest and they were my placebos to shoot the film. If I’d gone in without them it would have been a disaster. I actually learned to enjoy going on set not knowing what the location was, winging it, but sticking to the rules of the story and the approach to visuals that the storyboards helped me design.

What’s your first truly indelible movie experience? Were there any movie epiphanies?

Without question it would be the first movie I was taken to, Return of the Jedi when I was five years old in 1985. It was a mind-expanding moment, I loved the idea of being transported to a place I could never see. I was raised on Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, Verhoeven and genre in general – being transported to worlds that didn’t exist. I was 13, though, when I realized it wasn’t enough to just visit other worlds you couldn’t visit. I got this sense of wonder from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) where I started to ask, ‘Why do I feel like watching this movie?’ It was then that I decided I really wanted to make films. It was feeling empathy with the character. Whether awe, horror, terror, wonder, humour, sadness, catharsis – every emotion I had watching that and other great movies expanded through character. The more real it feels, the more empathy I had for the character. It heightens everything. Being a geek at heart, I of course wanted to make horror, science fiction and fantasy movies.

The dystopian vision of Citadel brought me back to the 70s. I’ve got a couple of decades on you, so my childhood and teen epiphanies occurred in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. Even though your film has a contemporary and only ever-so-slightly futuristic reality, there was something about the squalor of the setting and the terrible beauty of Citadel’s exquisite rawness that kept bringing me back to a bizarre reverse image of this chilling terror I experienced when I first saw George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971).

Every single one of those 60s and 70s films had an effect on me. Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) and The Omen (1976). When contemporary filmmakers remake films from that period, the new versions have a slick sense of production value that is rooted in the here and now, which makes them less scary. It’s the raw qualities of the 60s and 70s that made everything more real and hence scarier. I think I also always knew my first film would be low-budget – and the low budget was actually going to be essential to capturing those raw, realistic qualities that make genre films so scary.

It’s somehow a time when movies mattered. It’s nice to see movies like Citadel to keep reminding us that they still matter.

If anything, I’d have to say that the 70s are my favourite decade for horror movies.


Interview by Greg Klymkiw

Remember the Alamo: Alternative fortresses in film

Dog Soldiers

‘Know what this reminds me of? Rorke’s Drift. A hundred men of Harlech, making a desperate stand against 10,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered, surrounded, staring death in the face and not flinching for a moment. Balls of British steel.’ Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002)

Pvt ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon may grossly exaggerate the enemy numbers faced during the Anglo-Zulu War’s most famous battle, but as he prepares to help defend a farmhouse from an attack by werewolves the comparison is a resonant one. Holed up with his squaddie comrades deep in the Scottish Highlands, and under siege from lycanthrope adversaries, Spoon draws attention to a trait common to many horror movies: the backs-to-the-wall stand carried out in an ad-hoc ‘fortress’. Complete with a scene where a letterbox becomes the horizontal equivalent of a loophole, enabling a burst of gunfire rather than arrows to be deployed, Dog Soldiers casts the humble farmhouse in the role of a castle, a fortification designed to keep its inhabitants safe and the enemy on the outside. Though predominantly used in horror movies, the embattled-last-stand plot-line also crops up elsewhere: Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), itself inspired by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), and Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), in which a small, rural village is fortified, are notable entries into the non-traditional siege movie.

Evoking, either consciously or not, many historical sieges and last stands, from Masada to The Alamo and Leningrad, the alternative siege movie (for wont of a better catch-all definition), utilises many types of architectural structures as their last line of defence. Shopping malls, pubs, supermarkets, brothels, police stations, mansions, tower blocks and underground silos have all been co-opted to (rarely successfully) provide safety from all manner of adversarial forces in movies such as Red Lion (Kihachi Okamoto, 1969), From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) and 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). Zombies, vampires, criminal gangs, samurai armies, inter-dimensional entities and drunken, repressed locals have stalked, attacked and sometimes destroyed places not designed to withstand prolonged violent assaults. Even sanctuaries constructed with safety in mind, such as the oil-rich compound in George Miller’s Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981), a post-apocalyptic version of the circled wagons defensive technique seen in many Westerns, struggle to keep villainous gangs at arm’s length. Characterised by lengthy sequences set in one location inhabited by diverse, fractious characters, or ones intimate with each other but driven to the edge of breaking point, the alternative siege movie rarely ends well for the majority of its protagonists, even if the enemy is finally repelled. When actual weaponry is spent or absent, anything that can be brandished in its place usually will be. Cricket bats, man traps, gas canisters, kitchen implements and gardening equipment among other things take the place of guns, swords, bombs and shields. After all, when you’re staring death in the face, it’s better to be armed with a kitchen knife than nothing at all.

The zombie movie almost always revolves around a hardy group of survivors being laid siege to, and the Don of the genre, George A. Romero, placed his central characters in increasingly fortified, if not infallible, locations in his original Dead Trilogy. The isolated house in Night of the Living Dead (1969) gave way to the imposing, sprawling Monroeville Mall, replete with a storage room version of a castle’s keep, in Dawn of the Dead (1978), itself, ostensibly, usurped in the safety stakes by the underground silo in Day of the Dead (1985). That all of these places were eventually fatally compromised, from outside and within, flags up the necessity in terms of narrative drive and tension for the line between safety and danger, civilisation and anarchy, and life and death never to be full-proof. Even Day‘s silo – underground, window-free and populated in part by the military – was rendered useless by the actions of an insane soldier, and the foolhardy decision to hold scientific ‘specimens’ below ground. Indeed, internal schisms, the emotional, physical and mental pressures of life-or-death situations and the inadvertent or unavoidable presence of ‘the enemy’ inside a makeshift castle/fort are often as hazardous to survival rates as external threats.

Windows are a major problem for those trapped inside an embattled location, for while they may afford the opportunity to keep an eye on the enemy, they are also a relatively easily traversed entry point. The all-glass façade of the supermarket in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, The Mist (2007), The Winchester’s eyes onto the street in the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and the windows of the Sumners’ home in Straw Dogs are all architectural Achilles’ heels when it comes to fending off attackers. The Lovecraftian creatures drawn to The Mist‘s ‘fort’, the shuffling undead hordes of Wright and Simon Pegg’s horror spoof and the aggressive, insular locals threatening the married couple in Peckinpah’s psychological thriller penetrate the safety barrier, the dividing line between order and chaos, through what should be merely a source of light. The scalding of one of the locals with boiling oil thrown through a broken window by David (Dustin Hoffman) historically references the dark ages and specifically an oft used method of repelling invaders from castles.

Even family movies aren’t averse to conjuring up the ghosts of sieges past, for what are the latter stages of Christopher Columbus’s Home Alone (1990) but a siege movie played for laughs? Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin, a precocious, loveable youngster, finds himself essentially in the same situation as Straw Dogs‘ complex beta male David and the strained but mutually advantageous policeman/prisoner partnership in Precinct 13. His enemy, two bungling thieves, may break in but Kevin’s array of booby traps – internal defence mechanisms – succeed in protecting the McCallister family home.

They say that everyone loves an underdog, and the alternative siege movie gives audiences a chance to root for characters, some sympathetic, some not so, up against the wall with no apparent escape route and no option but to fight for their very existence. Be the presentation horrific, psychological or comedic, the base essence is the same: the survival instinct will kick in, however insurmountable the odds may appear.

Neil Mitchell

A Short Note on Vomit

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

In Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland’s grieving architect John Baxter mutters ‘I haven’t thrown up for 20 years’. His being sick is not only a marker of his increasing lack of control – he has a drinking session waiting for his wife to emerge from a pair of clairvoyant sisters – it is also of a piece with the general queasiness of the film. The world is a dirty place, full of spilled food and rubbish. Everything tilts in Venice, a disorientating confusion of memory and vision, with the past, present and future bleeding into each other.

Vomit comes up every now and again. Usually it arrives in expected contexts: a shocking murder scene will see a weak-livered deputy losing his lunch while the hardened investigator pries with a pen. But of late regurgitation rates have gone up. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), the sight of soldiers vomiting from a combination of seasickness and fear over the sides of the landing boats was as shocking as the violence and gore to come. It made the war dirtier than we are used to it. The same year, The Thin Red Line similarly has a soldier dribbling bile and complaining to being ‘sick in his stomach’.

Vomit as a physiological reaction to fear, pregnancy or horrific disgust is one thing. In The Exorcist and The Fly vomit becomes a weapon; in the former as a sign of repellent disrespect and in the latter an acidic leg-melting mess. Peter Jackson – in his earlier incarnation as a master of cheap sicko horror movies – rivalled John Waters in his strategic use of puke. See the appropriately titled Bad Taste (1989), or Meet the Feebles (1989). However, nowadays vomit has become so profligately used that it almost feels like a box to be ticked. The very fact that ‘gross out’ has become a comedy subgenre in some ways has robbed vomit of its shocking, subversive effect. Paul Rudd can blow chunks in I Love You Man (2009) without any fear of alienating the audience. Hot Tub Time Machine (2011), Date Night (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011) all have comedy vomit scenes and the Jackass series features several sequences where vomit is induced and delivered. The reminder that we are bodies, and the humiliation and social embarrassment that can sometimes cause, comes as a cathartic release: if we all admit to it then there is less shame, less embarrassment. Whereas John Baxter is slightly wondering at his loss of control, vomiting for Steve Carell is something that he can literally take in his stride. Team America: World Police makes the point with brilliant aplomb. When having drowned his sorrows in a bar and reached his clichéd low point, the puppet hero vomits prodigiously in the street, he does so to rousing music. Hitting the lowest point is indicative of overcoming it, so following the reductio ad absurdum, the lower the depth, the more heroic the inevitable recovery.

The over-the-top grossness of the comedy risks becoming humdrum via repetition and lacks the savagery of what must be the vomit scene to beat all vomit scenes: Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). It’s not only the shock of the vomit, the meaning of projectile, or the explosive ending, it’s the context: the restaurant of refined diners, Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impresario and John Cleese’s officious maître d’, and most of all food. Creosote introduces the ‘Autumn Years’ section of the film and behind the hilarity and Gargantuan humour, there is also something genuinely and savagely disturbing. The film recognises this threat, with Creosote introduced to something like the Jaws theme. He is greed personified, an accelerated cycle of self-destructive overconsumption and waste disposal. His spewing is the death wish, hilarious and fucking disgusting.

John Bleasdale

American Mary: Interview with Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle

American Mary

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 January 2013

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: FrightFest

Directors: Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska

Writers: Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska

Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren

Canada 2012

103 mins

Sexy and horrific, shocking and thoughtful, gorgeous and freakish, humorous and disturbing, American Mary sent a blast of fresh air through FrigthtFest back in August where it wowed the horror crowd. It opens in selected UK cinemas today, with the DVD and Blu-Ray release following shortly on 21 January.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger in John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s 2000 Ginger Snaps) plays Mary Mason, a medical student whose moral signposts are pushed further and further out by financial necessity as she is drawn into the underground world of illegal surgeries and extreme body modification. The second feature by Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, following Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), it is a boldly original conflagration of rape-and-revenge story, psychotic doctor/sadistic nurse characters and fetishist world with a feminist twist. Mary may indeed appear in sexualised fetish outfits, but she is no typical victim or mere eye candy. Disenchanted and angry against those she used to look up to, she uses her fine skills with a scalpel to stand up to the authority figures who have abused their power.

American Mary is a film with tremendous heart as well as terrific cinematic qualities. Complex and morally ambiguous, Mary is capable of repulsive acts, but never loses our sympathy. The body mod characters are handled sensitively, with the Betty Boop-like Beatress Johnson and Barbie-wannabe Ruby Realgirl equally grotesque, fascinating and moving. Ruby Realgirl in particular is a tragic character, provoking only violent disgust when she finally achieves the mass-market doll’s asexual sexiness she had longed for so much. In that as well as its main character’s story, American Mary brilliantly deals with the contradictions and pressures, but also the possibilities and variations, of modern female identity.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle about the monsters of the filmmaking industry, the importance of Ginger Snaps and making a feminist horror film.

Virginie Sélavy: American Mary seems like a big leap from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). What changed?

Jen: We had a little bit of money (laughs). A tiny bit more. But we knew we had no money when we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk so we picked grindhouse filmmaking, so hey, if there’s a few flaws that’s OK, that’s the style. With this one we wanted to show people that that’s not all we’re capable of. It’s more of a love letter to European and Asian cinema, especially as we’re such big fans of horror. Horror movies can be beautiful and operatic, I was really proud to be able to do that with the second film.

Sylvia: Dead Hooker in a Trunk was really to say, ‘here we are’, and American Mary was to say, ‘here is what we can do’. The main thing that changed was us in every way. When we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk we were super young, we were very ambitious, our hearts were on our sleeves, you can really see that. And then in American Mary, we’ve seen a lot of monsters, we’ve battled a lot of demons…

Jen: …and now we’ve become psychotic surgeons

Sylvia: … and we’re little bit pissed off about it! (laughs)

Yes, I read in an interview that what happens to Mary is a parallel for what’s happened to you in the world of filmmaking.

Sylvia: Very much so. It just became a little more honest than I originally intended because we wrote it in two weeks, and I was thinking, I just need to put something in there that I can relate to, and I put a lot of personal stuff in there. And when you put a lot of personal stuff in a film, it’s more than just you who sees it. It was nice to have that kind of dialogue because I know a lot of working women come into contact with a few monsters, even working men, and it was nice to hang those monsters up in a storage locker.

American Mary can be described as a rape-and-revenge story to some extent. Did you want to bring a fresh spin on that sub-genre?

Jen: I think the way we shot it was definitely something we wanted to put a spin on. And to say that it’s rape-revenge, I think that Mary went through a lot of things in the film that kind of tear away at her, and no one event is more than the other: having to compromise her morals with the surgery at the beginning and then the surgery with Ruby, and then finally those two sacrifices that she makes to continue with her medical profession, and then she finds out that the people she’s idolising are not exactly what she was hoping for.

But most rape scenes are shot to be completely gratifying to men, and we even had some notes, ‘you’ve got to make sure that Katie’s tits come out at some point’, and we said ‘absolutely not’ because then, not that I have something against nudity, but the main thing that everybody would be talking about would be, ‘oh here’s Katharine’s breasts, oh my god, how fantastic’.

Sylvia: And considering how rape is one of those things that is rampant in our society, and almost shameful to even mention, if you show it in the horrific light that it is and people are like, ‘it is a very long and upsetting scene’, I’m like, ‘yeah, because if you are in that situation you don’t get to cut away’. A lot of it is on her expression and on his expression. I love watching how difficult it is for people to watch because it is realistic, it is real horror, and it is what a horror film should have.

It was a huge and welcome contrast to rape scenes in some of the films that showed at FrightFest last August. Do you feel you’ve made a feminist horror film?

Jen: Very much so. When we have films like Twilight, that go under the guise of ‘this is a female’s film’, my god, I hope that’s not a female’s film, because I think back in the dark ages a woman defined herself by who she’s with, and men defined themselves by what they do professionally, and to go back to pining over two guys, what about your own life? The writer of Twilight said that she was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just blew my mind because this is a very self-assertive woman who is in charge of her own destiny with some guys in the background. We also took the crap of why doesn’t Mary leave with the guy at the end, or why does she not get the guys to fight her battles for her. I think there is such a lack of women fighting their own battles that are portrayed in films.

Sylvia: Yeah, it’s an agenda of making women seem weaker and subservient and I just couldn’t stand that, especially after the horrific event that happens between her and her mentor, people are like, ‘why doesn’t she cry?’ And I’m like, ‘how many movies have you seen where something horrific happens and the female character is crying and then calling someone else to help her?’ No, I don’t want to see that anymore.

Katharine, do you feel you play a feminist heroine in the film?

Katharine: I absolutely do. I’ve done a few horror movies and it’s absolutely refreshing. The character of Mary on paper has no redeemable qualities. She’s not that pleasant, she’s not that kind, she has no friends, she has no family. She’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed, and that was refreshing in itself. I tried my best to make the character likeable without sweetening anything, without dumping any radical rigid feminist plotlines and themes! (laughs) I think it was the most true-to-life character that I’ve ever had the opportunity to portray because all the time in film women are, like Sylvia said earlier, those sort of easy bake kind of cookie images, like the slut, the tease, the good girl next door. And to have a character that was so multi-dimensional, that didn’t have any particular redeeming qualities, but was still likeable, was still strong, was still interesting and stood up for herself and gave not one fuck about anyone else, or what anyone else thought, or what anyone else expected of her, is something that I think we need to see more of in film and in society in general.

You played another very important horror female character in Ginger Snaps. She was also something refreshingly new.

Katharine: Yeah, I’m really blessed to have been given those two girls, Ginger and Mary. In Ginger Snaps, I was 17, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But that’s what she says in that movie, a girl can only be a bitch, a slut or the girl next door, or something like that. And it kind of came full circle for me with American Mary, it’s like maybe that’s what would happen to Ginger if she didn’t end up being a werewolf – she’d be a weird psychotic surgeon! (laughs)

Sylvia: That’s really interesting because when I was a teenage girl Jen and I were called the Fitzgerald sisters because we were so similar and dark, and that movie got me through a lot of things, being teased a lot, mocked, and I got a lot of strength from those girls. And now you’re playing this next decade of a same kind of power female – now I’m going to have to write a forty-year-old! (laughs)

Jen: We actually have a forty-year-old housewife role…

Sylvia: It’s fun to see that, because you were not only a big part of my growing up as a teenager but a lot of girls growing up as teenagers, and to get you to do this next step is really interesting.

You deal with body modification in a complex and sensitive way. What led you to set the film in that world?

Sylvia: We wanted to have people from the real-life community: they don’t take off their horns, they don’t put their tongue back, they don’t change, it’s their life choice. And more often than not people are going to judge them because of this choice of how they feel more comfortable in their own skin. This is probably the first movie that just focuses on the body mod culture and I wanted to have a good first introduction. I wanted to have respect for the people who looked over the script, the people who came from the society to actually play themselves and be authentic, and it was my goal to do these people a proper representation. And some people will always be ignorant but I hope it educates and shows that these are just people, just like if I got a Mohawk it’d still be me, it just doesn’t change anything.

Jen: You’d look cute with a Mohawk.

Sylvia: I’m going for it.

American Mary will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21 January 2013 and opens at UK cinemas on 11 January 2013 (Frightfest).

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Watch the trailer:

Sightseers: Interview with Ben Wheatley


Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: StudioCanal

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Steve Oram, Alice Lowe, Amy Jump

Cast: Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies

UK 2012

88 mins

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.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

House of Psychotic Women: A confessional approach to exploitation films


House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films
By Kier-La Janisse
FAB Press 357pp £19.99

Never speak – or write – too soon. In the last Cine Lit column two new books on horror were reviewed and the speculation posited, ‘What more could possibly be said about the genre with such a tsunami of texts already out there?’ Well, I hadn’t counted on Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women dropping through my letterbox. The subtitle alone invites one to wonder what hybrid narrative lies within and the author states very clearly – and contentiously – within what terms this cultural confessional will unfold. It is worth quoting at some length as it gives a precise indication as to the tone and uniquely subjective nature of the book:

When I first started edging into film writing in the mid-’90s, I was all about girl power; how horror films (even slasher films) were empowering to women, how most horror films were about men’s anxieties concerning the nature of femininity and female sexuality, gender relations, castration anxiety – all this great meaty stuff… For a female horror fan/exploitation fan, that’s a great place to start; certainly much more productive than denouncing the whole genre all together as some counter-revolutionary, misogynist exercise… I wanted to explore neurotic characterization as comprehensively as I could, but I didn’t want to write a dense book on horror theory… if I started leaning too much on Freud and Lacan I’d be out of my depth. I needed to focus on what I know: namely, that the films I watch align with my personal experience that every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another. [A good thing a man did not write this!]

She goes on:

I myself have been the subject of a film Celluloid Horror, 2003… the film delved into some uncomfortable subject matter: my adolescent propensity for physical violence, my history in group homes, foster homes and detention centres, and the years of involuntary therapy…Most painful of all, it captured the disintegration of my brief marriage. My constructive participation in genre film exhibition and promotion has curbed my (often misdirected) aggression to a great degree. As my own neurosis became more subdued I found myself unconsciously drawn to female characters who exhibited signs of behaviour I had recognized in myself: repression, delusion, paranoia, hysteria…my life is enveloped by chaos…Unresolved issues weigh heavily on me: feelings of failure, sabotaged relationships, blinding anger…

As she points out, the book ‘follows her personal trajectory’ as she examines cinematic patterns and weaves in and out of film synopses and critiques as they relate to her, and she is clear on this point: it is primarily a book about her life. Of course, the problem with such a unique autobiographical approach to film writing is whether the reader really cares about the author and his/her life and hard times, and with regard to that I remain ambivalent.

It is a problematic tightrope to walk between film analysis taken as a personal critical odyssey on the one hand, and film analysis as an excuse for self-indulgent therapy on the other. And here Janisse falters, sometimes delivering a fine balancing act, sometimes falling off the wire. For her breadth of knowledge of the genre and her erudite and insightful critiques of individual films there is much to admire in, and learn from, the book, but whether writing it from such a psycho-therapeutic point of view adds to the reader’s appreciation or knowledge of the genre is in question – as is my (male) awareness of the gender politics that bear on it. There was a curious sense of guilt, atonement and apology arising between the lines, which was distracting, and the book – absorbing and even brave as it is – comes off as an articulate and intelligent volume of confessions that frame the films, rather than the other way around. A one-of-a-kind experience to be sure.

James B. Evans

Sitges Film Festival 2012


Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia

4-14 October 2012, Sitges, Spain

Sitges website

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.

Evrim Ersoy

London Film Festival 2012 – Part 2

John Dies at the End

56th BFI London Film Festival

10-21 October 2012, London

LFF website

Mark Stafford reviews some of the highlights of the London Film Festival, including Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and David Ayer’s End of Watch, out on UK screens this month.

John Dies at the End

Your new favourite film. A flip, funny thrill ride full of trippy headfuckery, rubber monsters, snappy dialogue and wild ideas, adapted from David Wong’s cult novel by Don (Phantasm/Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli. Trying to explain the film’s singular tone is difficult: it’s like a punky horror/SF adventure infused with the snarky, iconoclastic sensibility of Fight Club.

Any attempt at a plot summary would be pretty much doomed; suffice to say that it concerns the effects of an intravenous drug called ‘soy sauce’, which has the effect of not so much opening the doors of perception as blowing them off their hinges. Users are apt to receive phone calls from the future and see physical manifestations of beings from other planes of existence, as a prelude to entering a multiverse of trouble and what looks like an inevitable spectacularly messy demise. David Wong (Chase Williamson) is trying to explain his recent life history on the sauce to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), the tale of how he and college buddy John (Andy Meyers) came by the stuff and started a chain of events that leads to them attempting to save the world from creepy inter-dimensional interlopers. Nothing is straightforward in this fast-paced genre mash-up: time and space are distorted, people aren’t what they seem, and metaphysical conundrums pop up with alarming regularity. I’m not sure if it’s about anything, exactly. There is a suspicion that it’s more smart-arsed than smart in places, and the random nature of the story means that it loses a little momentum before the home stretch, but I’m quibbling. It’s a blast, a wonderfully weird, eminently quotable midnight movie. Just don’t ask what happens to John, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.

A Liar’s Autobiography

Fourteen different animation studios pitch in to realise the late lamented Python Graham Chapman’s memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography, using recordings that Chapman made himself, assisted vocally by John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland, among others (Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud). The result is a somewhat disjointed, inconsistent, hugely affectionate film that leaps from point to point through a charmed and blighted life. It’s a woozy, drifting thing, where memory often gives way to fantasy, and you’d be hard pressed to decipher from it the actual biographical detail, the who, what, where and when, of Chapman’s life. But that’s hardly the point. He emerges as a kind of anti-Kenneth Williams, utterly un-tortured by his sexuality and status, but a bugger for the bottle, as a Python song would put it, seriously destroying his health, but never apparently committing the sin of being bad company.

The animation varies from stiff and flat to gorgeous and accomplished – I loved the nightmarish delirium tremens sequence, and the Scarborough holiday moments. A bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole it’s all rather lovely.

The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding film features Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher, a likeable man in a small Danish town of other likeable types, starting to pull his life together after a messy divorce, until one day he is accused by an angelic child, daughter of his best friend, and one of his charges, of inappropriate sexual behaviour. What follows is a tense, occasionally agonising drama as a good man’s life is systematically destroyed by reasonable people reduced to violence and hatred by an unfounded suspicion. It’s all well thought through, and nightmarishly plausible. Mikkelsen puts in fine work, but then none of the performers strikes a false note. The child especially comes across as a real living, breathing girl, whose actions make sense in a little girl way, worlds away from any number of Hollywood moppets. Photography is crisp and unfussy and the whole thing is full of well observed domestic detail that add weight to the horror and heartbreak. Not an easy watch, but worth it.

The Hunt is released in the UK on 30 November 2012 by Arrow Films.


In which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a slight, vulnerable-looking boy, spends his days nicking the expensive gear of holidaying skiers at a Swiss resort, so that he can sell it on to the kids at the bottom of the mountain and support his feckless older sister as she quits job after job and fools around with a succession of jerks. He’s a ballsy, resourceful kid, but it’s clear that the precarious existence he’s created cannot last forever, and something is clearly wrong with the family situation. Ursula Meier’s film is perfectly fine, in a low-key sub- Dardennes kind of way. Gillian Anderson cameos as a guest at the resort, representing a way of life lost to the little thief; the location gives the film an aesthetic buzz; and John Parish’s throbbing score is sparingly used but damn fine. It’s clearly a heartfelt piece by a smart director – wish I could say I liked it more.

End of Watch

David Ayer’s cop drama feels at times like a recruitment ad for the LAPD gone seriously askew. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña playing the kind of unambiguous hero cops who’ll leap into burning buildings to rescue children – true blue, courageous, good husband and boyfriend material – which the film pits against the population of South Central Los Angeles, who, on this evidence, are all irrational, cruel and clueless, when not being actively malignant. Every house our partners enter contains another horror story, every car they stop contains a maniac with an AK 47, and as time passes their actions interfere more and more with the activities of a seriously nasty Mexican cartel, who have no qualms about putting out a hit on a couple of heroes.

The essential problem with End of Watch is that the vérité dynamics of the performances and camerawork are totally at odds with the heart-on-sleeve good versus evil schematics. The visuals are saying ‘this is real’, with all the action supposedly captured on surveillance and personal cameras, while galloping clichés and unlikely incidents are saying ‘this is horseshit’. The film starts with the legend ‘Once upon a time in South Central’ and names its main bad guy ‘Big Evil’, then knocks itself out straining for grimy authenticity.

You find yourself waiting in vain for some ambiguity to creep in, some acknowledgement of Rampart or Rodney King. Likewise, you keep expecting the ‘digital witness’ styling, which is consistently foregrounded, to actually have some significance to the story. But it doesn’t, and the horrible suspicion grows that this is just a pro-cop flag-waver with a simplistic Michael Winner agenda.

For all that, it’s actually pretty damn entertaining, largely because Gyllenhaall and Peña have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch, as are the outrageously horrible gang they’re up against, who provide some diverting, sleazy thrills. It’s funny and tense when it needs to be, has moments of oddball, Joseph Wambaugh-esque detail and it moves at an agreeable clip. But at the end of the day it’s not much cop.

End of Watch is released in the UK on 23 November 2012 by Studiocanal.
My Amityville Horror

My Amityville Horror

This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 70s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.

The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.

There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.

The Body

Julia’s Eyes writer Oriol Paulo turns co-writer and director for this wonderful piece of creepy hokum, an implausible cocktail of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Les Diaboliques, which, for the most part, features a man surrounded by suspicious cops being elaborately framed, apparently by a dead woman, for a murder he has committed. In a morgue. During a thunderstorm. Can we call a film delicious? I think we can.


An effective, nasty little film from Craig Zobel. Something fishy is up at the Chick-wich fast food outlet, it’s a busy day and they’re low on bacon, when police officer Daniels phones to accuse one of their members of staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), of theft. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) goes along with his requests, searching Becky’s things, and then, at his repeated insistence, strip-searches Becky herself. So far, so creepy, but as the day wears on and the promised cops fail to show up, the demands of Officer Daniels become more and more extreme…

Zobel clearly wants to make you feel uncomfortable and does a great job of it, stretching out the moments of stilted conversation, dawning realisation and disbelief. His film walks a fine tightrope, how far can he push this? You find yourself in a state of growing anger, hoping that someone on screen will have the balls to question the caller, or refuse his demands. Which I guess is the point. I doubt I was the only one to recall Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments of the 60s. How far do you obey authority’s demands? What are you willing to do if given permission? Big questions for what some would dismiss as a horrible piece of exploitation. But then Zobel has the ultimate get-out clause in that Compliance is based on true events, that happened over and over again.

Although the film isn’t particularly explicit, it clearly crossed a line for many in the packed audience I was in. The sound of seats flipping up started at about the half-hour mark, and built to a crescendo, with one man yelling, ‘come on every body, time to leave!’ as Becky’s humiliation continued. The majority of us stayed though, squirming in the dark. I guess we were compliant.

West of Memphis

A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.

Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.

It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.

All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.

West of Membphis is released in the UK on 21 December 2012 by Sony Pictures.