Unwatchable terror started in my Roman Catholic school. Horror films of incredible brutality or porn of whispered disgusting degradation. Films so extreme they couldn’t be imagined, only described. They were forbidden and filthy. Sometimes, it would just be a scene without context. A relatively tame example would be The Omen 2 where a man is chopped in half by a cable in an elevator. For some reason – my imagination still informed more by Tom and Jerry than George Romero – I thought ‘chopped in half’ meant bisected cranium to crotch, but such misunderstandings make up a wonderful miasma surrounding the actual mundane irreality of the films themselves.
During the first summer holiday of video recorders, a friend and I would rent out from the nonchalantly permissive petrol station a whole swathe of what would come to be lumped together as ‘video nasties’. We saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exterminator, Evil Dead, Driller Killer, Dawn of the Dead and several films I can’t remember the titles of, but where people died in horrific ways, one involving a helicopter blade and a door.
Watch the trailer to Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:
I say I saw these films, but I actually only saw them partway through, three quarters I’d say. The thing was, by the time we’d walked down to the station, made our choice and walked back, we’d start the film and after an hour I’d have to go home for my lunch. Then my friend’s mother would be in from her cleaning job in the afternoon and we’d have to take the videos back to the garage.
Consequently, I grew up dénouement-less. Teenagers got sliced and tortured, innocents despatched, the evil unleashed, then I went for banana sandwiches and crisps. The films swelled in my imagination, and only two things were sure: the killer was still on the loose and no one was safe.
These were sinful films. Films I could not believe people would appear in, or be responsible for. It occurred to me that the people who made these films had to be not merely disreputable but actively evil. There was no other excuse for what they wanted us to watch, for what they thought up. And my watching the films was shameful and sinful too.
But as bad as all these films were, the instant you watched them they obviously ceased to be unwatchable and other films, films I only heard of and hadn’t seen, took their place: Zombie Apocalypse, Cannibal Holocaust and Necromancer. All these movies held the fusty lure of the snuff movie, the hint that what you were watching was somehow actually happening.
Urban legend soon became part of the marketing campaign. The adverse reactions of audience members were written up as good copy, heightening expectation and creating hysteria from Psycho to The Exorcist to The Blair Witch Project, with theatre owners complaining of ruined upholstery and vomit-stained aisles. ‘This Film Could Only Be Made in South America …Where Life Is Cheap’ screams the tagline to the 1976 grindhouse film Snuff. Though Snuff was actually a re-edited, re-titled 1971 film called Slaughter, with an extra murder thrown in to capitalise on a recent media scare about snuff films. The publicity earned the film more money in its opening week than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but also managed to cement the idea of real snuff movies firmly in the public subconscious. Sometimes the publicity backfired on the filmmakers. Most famously when Ruggero Deodato ended up in a Milanese courtroom having to prove he could replicate the gory impalements of Cannibal Holocaust without having to off a dollar-a-day native.
What it came down to essentially was wet death, the gory revelation of our physical moistness summed up by that wonderful onomatopoeia-become genre: splatter. The messiness of it always made it seem more authentic to me. It was like that juvenile cousin to horror and porn (another article to follow on this subject) the custard pie fight. You can’t act being hit in the face by a custard pie. You just get hit in the face with a custard pie. And so it seemed with gore. Even if the limbs were fake, you still got covered in all that gunk. This, by the way, is why CGI blood and guts ruin horror. The tactile reality of dampness is gone and unwatchable films become – as the video nasty generation hits adulthood – merely ‘unrated’. From the queasy extremes of Audition to the adolescent relish of Hostel, ‘torture porn’ reveals the dry-wet calculus all too obviously.
Of course being brought up a Catholic brings with it a complicated relationship to sin. I was a devout Catholic, went to Catholic schools, attended mass three times a week as an altar boy and even thought I had a vocation to be a priest at one point. The Catholic Church’s participation in The Exorcist makes perfect sense to me. The film very effectively portrays a world view in which the only salvation is to trust priests to do whatever they like with your little girls. It is a truly terrifying film in that respect. Even with our watching habits.
Watch the trailer to The Exorcist:
Though the headmaster might rail against these films and boys with dirty, grubby minds, the school also invited anti-abortionist group SPUC to come and show us videos of real-life abortions taking place, the gory reality of it. The mortifying of the flesh has a long tradition and gruesome martyrdoms are all part and parcel of the Catholic love-hate, hate, hate relationship with the body. Mel Gibson’s dripping The Passion of the Christ is its cinematic apotheosis, the ultimate wet death. It is the gaping at the unwatchable. I would have happily watched it one summer’s morning, although I would have missed the end and Christ would be chained to the pillar still.
Brighton-born independent director Pete Walker blazed a stylish and successful trail of mayhem through the flailing British cinema industry of the 1970s with a string of ‘terror’ pictures which delved further into the dark side of the human psyche than Hammer dared venture.
Beginning his filmmaking career in the early 1960s producing short ‘nudie-cutie’ films, graduating to sexploitation features, and soon spotting a gap in the market for grimy, gritty contemporary horror features, Pete Walker was a gifted director on an unashamed mission to provide cinema-going punters with the lurid thrills they wanted – as far as he was able given the constraints of British censors and slender budgets.
The son of flamboyant music hall comic Syd Walker, Pete was something of a showman himself, and delighted in playing the pantomime villain of the British film industry, outraging the moral majority – especially self-appointed guardian of British morals, Mary Whitehouse, and tabloid newspaper readers – with his oft-grisly, taboo-busting films. He once told Film Illustrated: ‘I don’t want people coming out of the cinema saying “what a lovely well-made picture”… the truth is that people don’t go to see lovely, well-made pictures.’ They may not have been lovely – it isn’t generally the first word that springs to mind when you consider Pete Walker’s films – but they were consistently well-made – and in contrast with much British movie-making at the time – highly profitable. What’s more, they still pack a punch today.
He hit his stride in the early 1970s, when he began to focus more exclusively on what he called his ‘terror’ pictures rather than comedy and sexploitation. Walker’s self-financed films (the profits from one would finance the next) bore the distinctive signs of an exploitation auteur. Shunning the now-hackneyed period settings of Hammer Gothic, Walker’s work was relentlessly up to date – sharply zooming in on a gloomy, grey, glum Britain, adrift in an austere, uncertain decade, the acid-tinged optimism of the 1960s an increasingly distant memory. Amidst the sex and violence, Pete’s films were shot through with bleak cynicism, and an uneasy air of disquiet. Short on happy endings, ambiguous in their political slant, and not suggestive of any easy answers, Walker’s best features reflected the awkward tension between permissiveness and repression in that fascinating decade, as youth and establishment collided, and often dwelled on the idea of corruption at the heart of seemingly respectable social institutions, like the Catholic Church, or the Prison Service. But these were no dreary political pieces; they were made to make money, and Walker optimised the exploitation content, working closely with excellent screenwriters including David McGillivray and Michael Armstrong. There was sex, there was repression, there was perversion, there was violence; but amidst all this bleakness, there were also Hitchcock-inspired flashes of sharp, dry, jet-black humour.
There are many lurid delights to savour in the Pete Walker canon. You might begin a whistle-stop tour through his back catalogue with Man of Violence (1970), one of his formative early works, a splendidly amoral gangster tale, where it’s hard to tell the goodies from the baddies. Described by Walker as a ‘Bogart-style spoof’, it was – of course – torn to pieces by critics at the time, but now fascinates both as a sleazy period piece and a piquant ingredient in the Brit-gangster melting pot that would shortly afterwards serve up Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971).
After that, why not move on to The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), an atmospheric, bloody multiple-murder whodunit set in a suitably spooky old theatre at the murky end of the pier – shot on location in Brighton – and starring a picture-postcard selection of young heartthrobs of the time: Ray Brooks, Robin Askwith, Luan Peters and Jenny Hanley. Who will survive? Who will snuff it? It’s splendid stuff, and as the title suggests, there’s plenty of flesh and plenty of blood.
Watch the trailer to House of Whipcord (1974):
You’re on to the bona fide classics once you get to House of Whipcord (1974), a remarkably moody, brooding, brutal prison drama. In this dreadful establishment, young women are punished for ‘permissive behaviour.’ Forced to swap their Carnaby Street gladrags for hessian tunics by unhinged, corrupt prison governor Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham), they receive regular whippings from the cruel wardress (played to perfection by gimlet-eyed Sheila Keith, who was a Walker regular). Oppressively shot on location in the Forest of Dean, creepy, chilling, pessimistic and relentlessly bleak, this is top-drawer Walker. It even impressed critics – eager to unearth allegories in his work – to Pete’s surprise and wry amusement.
You can’t go wrong with Frightmare (1974) either, perhaps Walker’s masterpiece, which gleefully combines lurid, critic-baiting cannibalistic thrills and gory exploits with a power drill (wielded by Sheila Keith, joined here by Rupert Davies), with a gently persuasive subtext about the ineffectuality of psychiatry. It was extreme stuff, as far as British cinema was concerned, and – as usual with Pete’s films – provoked some negative press. Of course, that’s the kind of publicity money just can’t buy, and the director made the most of it, plastering the bad reviews across his advertisements like badges of honour. ‘A despicable film,’ sniffed The Observer; Pete cheerfully whacked it on the poster in big letters, and another coachload of punters flocked to see it. The film remains the director’s personal favourite.
Watch the trailer to Frightmare (1974):
Corruption in the church is the theme of House of Mortal Sin (1975), particularly the perverse desires of nasty Catholic Priest Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp); it all ends badly, and no one is saved; while The Comeback (1977) features singer Jack Jones – playing a singer trying to revitalise his recording career – caught up in a bizarre murder mystery involving a highly Hitchcockian knife-wielding transvestite, who looks a lot like Norman Bates’s mum. It’s a gorily entertaining oddity indeed… they just don’t make ‘em like that any more, alas.
Watch the trailer to House of Mortal Sin (1976):
Calling it quits after shooting his most traditionally Gothic horror, The House of the Long Shadows (1983), which entertainingly teamed Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, John Carradine and the aforementioned Sheila Keith, Pete Walker gave up filmmaking and invested his money in property – notably buying a chain of cinemas in the Isle of Wight. Pete didn’t want to make films for the home video market, as he later confessed: ‘My love was the cinema. It was darkened auditoriums and shadows on a screen and shared experiences.’ Pete Walker’s love of cinema shines through all of his work; and the years have not diminished his finest features. Now, as then, when a Pete Walker ‘terror’ picture is playing, the auditorium is surely at its darkest.
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain, Gunnar Hansen
During the pre-production of ‘Leatherface’, a horror film script by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, the production manager, Ron Bozman, was away in Houston playing poker, and he pitched the idea around the table. One of the players suggested an alternative name – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCM). A classic was born.
2014 sees the 40th anniversary of its release. The title alone is a work of art, but it’s the way the film transcended traditional notions of the genre and threw us headlong into a terrifying nihilistic attack on the American dream that secured its longevity.
The story is simple. Five hippie kids (Sally Hardesty, Franklin Hardesty, Kirk, Pam and Jerry) visiting their grandfather’s long forgotten, dilapidated house in rural Texas are terrorised by a grave-robbing family of cannibals (Old Man, Hitchhiker, Leatherface and Grandpa).
The 40th anniversary restoration of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is released in the UK on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 17 November 2014. The two-disc limited edition Steelbook Blu-ray is packed with new bonus features, including a new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper.
Watching the ‘making of’ documentary The Shocking Truth I was amazed by the accidental way in which the armadillo spinning in the road in the opening moments ended up in TCM. The script version doesn’t mention it. Instead, it has the rotting carcass of a dog baking in the hot sun before the camper van zooms by. There is also no mention of the grave-robbing or the freeze-frame flash of the camera showing us the gruesome sculptures Hitchhiker left behind. Intrigued, I decided to explore some of the key moments of the screenplay to see how what Hooper and Henkel (H&H) wrote on the page shaped the film.
H&H’s first draft of ‘Leatherface’ was a whopping 160 pages. This was reduced to 103 by the time it went into production. Roughly speaking one page of script equals one minute of screen time. TCM is a short film, clocking in at only 83 minutes. The main reason for this is that only half of the first 40 pages actually ended up on the screen: much pointless, hippy dippy dialogue about the zodiac and unnecessary exposition were thankfully dropped.
When academic Carol J. Glover dared to watch TCM in 1985 she wrote in the introduction of her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: ‘It jolted me into questioning for the first time the notion of the “male gaze” and its assumption of masculine.’ This is best illustrated by the way our hero, Sally Hardesty, is introduced in the script. First she is an archetype – ‘a beautiful blond girl’. Just another one of the five stereotypical young Americans in a camper van driving through Texas. Even wheelchair-bound Franklin is simply described as: ‘a young man in a wheelchair’. The only hint of his weight is the ‘sagging ramp to the ground’ when he exits the camper van for a pee.
When they leave the confines of the vehicle to wander around the cemetery she is quite definitely singled out on the page for her sex appeal. H&H wrote:
Sally is braless and her breasts bounce enticingly beneath the thin fabric of her t-shirt.
This exact image plays out on screen. With this shot, Hooper is able to make the camera, and therefore the audience, become the wandering eyes of the lusting rednecks in the graveyard.
Out on the highway we are introduced to Hitchhiker. This Charles Manson caricature is clearly a product of casting, because on the page H&H described him with curly carrot-coloured hair. His role in the screenplay is to point out the post-industrial wastelands that the city (represented by Sally and her friends) had left him and his family through the economic destruction of this rural community.
This exploration of the socio-political climate for horrific ends continues what The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left (1972) had started. For decades the horror genre explored evil fantasy monsters or ghosts in far off places like Eastern Europe. But with America stuck in a war it couldn’t win, the liberal dream stabbed to death at Altamont and serial killers now becoming pop celebrities. George A. Romero and Wes Craven’s films invited audiences to look at the dark reality of their country. For Hooper, appalled by the atrocities of the Vietnam War, ‘man was the real monster’.
The initial appearance of Leatherface is as fleeting as it is shocking on the page. With the whirring ‘motor noise’ still rattling in the background the hapless Kirk wanders into the house. Our only worry at this stage is that the owners may catch him trespassing. He bounds inside, but trips up. As he gets to his feet H&H write themselves into the modern horror history books with the line:
Kirk catches a fleeting glimpse of a horrible leathery mask covering the face.
The first genuinely new horror icon of the post-war period is born. A couple of hammer blows later and Kirk is dead. This visceral moment ends abruptly and attention immediately switches to Pam. Naturally, she goes into the house to look for her man. H&H revel in spoiling us with terrifically gruesome scene descriptions that resurrect the spirit of Ed Gein’s domesticity. They tease out the gory details over three pages from this understated starting point:
As her eyes adjust she sees that the furniture is constructed of a combination of bone, metal, wood and some sort of thin leathery substance.
Each piece of the macabre decor magnifies Pam’s fear and trepidation. It’s uncomfortable because you’re watching and waiting to see someone die. On the page it’s a much slower, more gruelling experience as you pick your way through each piece of human bric-a-brac. There’s far more here than the camera has time to look at, but you get the sense they’re in the room nevertheless. When the killer finally reappears H&H reveal precisely what Leatherface looks like using Pam’s POV.
It is a close fitting hood rather than a mask, covering the entire head and slit to accommodate the ears. The face of the hood is human, but shrivelled and leathery. There is a throat piece which is tucked below the collar. Over his clothing the masked figure wears a black heavy apron.
Later, on the same page, they condense the description to christen him Leatherface at the very moment when he stuns Pam with a hammer. The formula is speeded up for Jerry’s more efficient death. The surprise of the first murder and the subsequent suspense in the run-up to the next two elevate the drama in the TCM screenplay above the purely exploitative graphic violence of Last House on the Left. This is because Hooper’s direction never lingers on the violent act. Like Craven he shocks you, but he’s never interested in the blood spilled by Leatherface. Although the screenplay revels in the blood lust of our killer, none of it made it on screen.
For example, we see:
With a squeal the masked figure lifts Pam high in the air and rushes her across the room. She feels a smooth warm prick and she is free, high in the air impaled on the brutal steel of a meat hook. Pam kicks weakly. Her eyes roll in their sockets, she tries to scream…
But we don’t see:
…but her throat fills with blood and she chokes and gags. Leatherface moves swiftly. He strips Kirk’s body of its remaining flesh, lifts it from the meat hook and lays it on a huge butchers block. Blood pours from Pam’s mouth. Her hands flutter weakly; her eyes have rolled back in her head and show only white. Leatherface draws the starter rope of a gasoline powered chain saw and it coughs then roars. Pam twitches faintly. She coughs and spews a bloody mist clouding the air. The chain saw changes pitch as it bites into Kirk’s flesh.
No doubt budget and time would have had an impact on Hooper’s directorial decisions. Certainly the introduction of the chainsaw is held back a little bit longer.
It’s night when Sally and Franklin decide to look for their missing friends. Up until this point, Franklin is her only antagonist in the film. His disability isn’t enough for H&H’s idea of drama. Instead they give us a pig-headed brother who resents having to leech off his sister and doesn’t mind letting her know with his constant whining. It’s not always clear on the page how annoying Franklin is being, but his performance never fails to show it. This may have had more to do with how Hooper treated his actors during the shoot. At SXSW in March 2014 Hooper said: ‘I would separate the actors and not let them socialize. Franklin, I would advise him and he went with it … to not change his clothes to get as sweaty as possible, to never have lunch with anybody else.’
At this crucial point in the film the screenplay is explicit about how tense Sally is becoming about their missing friends and how much of a burden a needy, wheelchair-bound brother is in this situation. She fights with Franklin for the flashlight and the right to search for everyone on her own. His role as Sally’s antagonist is never clearer than at this point:
Franklin guesses her intentions and is reluctant and deliberately stupid.
Here’s where Franklin begins to honk the horn and they discover the van keys are missing. They no longer have the choice of heading back to the gas station for help. Sally has to go looking for their missing friends. But her brother, ever the burden, goes after her and for the first time his disability actively becomes a problem for both of them.
Sally… I’m going too.
Sally moves rapidly away; she does not respond to Franklin.
Franklin is close behind, labouring desperately to keep up. His chair wobbles awkwardly and he has difficulty in steering.
Sally…. I can’t keep up.
Still Sally does not respond and Franklin begins to drop behind. She enters the forest; Franklin is desperate.
Rather than make you wait until they reach the house, H&H use the cloak of darkness to deliver a new, loud, visceral surprise. They wrote:
[Sally and Franklin] whirl to face the noise and see a massive, hulking figure roar down upon them wielding a chain saw. The ugly steel fangs of the saw flash in the moonlight and the waving beam of the flashlight.
It’s the first time Leatherface is paired with his signature weapon. In the script this is page 73 out of 103. Admittedly, it’s only around 50 minutes in on screen. Franklin is dispatched in seconds and Sally runs away screaming.
By killing Franklin, H&H invented ‘the final girl’ phenomenon.
Sally escapes to the Old Man’s service station via the house and through a forest. In the screenplay there is some traffic on the road that swerves around Sally as she ‘screams and pleads’ for them to stop. None of this made it into the film. I would argue that the presence of others at this stage would have severely weakened the end sequence.
Safe inside, and the threat of Leatherface seemingly gone, she soon discovers that her saviour is also part of the murderous clan.
The Old Man is carrying a gunny sack; his behaviour is strangely ominous. Sally senses something is amiss and looks more closely at him.
In the script the graveyard crimes from the opening segment of the film are used by the Old Man to chastise the Hitchhiker as they bring Sally into the house.
I told you to stay away from that graveyard.
Whereas on screen this line changes to:
I told you. I told you never leave your brother alone.
So what would appear to be big, important changes at the start of the film barely get another mention by the end of the film.
Decanted to the house she meets Grandpa, and in a satire of the nuclear family, Leatherface plays the role of matriarch.
The mask is distinctly different from the one he wore earlier. It is the tanned facial skin of an elderly woman.
On screen you see Leatherface has lipstick and pale blue eye shadow on. It’s a macabre sitcom scene in the making. The screenplay goes on to paint a clearer picture of the absurdism at play here:
Behind the mask Leatherface is smiling broadly; there is a flash of filed teeth. He is excited and pleased with himself; he approaches wiping his hands on his apron.
H&H try to get Leatherface to interact. The words on the page are not lines for any actor to learn verbatim, they are just gobbledygook. His first line of dialogue reads:
LEATHERFACE ’A ab e y ob er ewe ober’
Rather than make him a fully fledged member of the family, each time he speaks, it gives the Old Man more reason to shout at him. It is during these exchanges that the film, more than the screenplay, expose this sadistic, mindless killer as no more than a simple child behind closed door.
James Rose’s book about TCM (Devil’s Advocates series, Auteur Press) describes this scene as a warning about how far people are prepared to go if you cut them off socially and economically.
On the page we can read a list of horrors that Sally can see in the room. Whereas on screen Hooper chooses to show the horror etched into Sally’s face as she, bound to a chair and gagged, takes in the room. He saves the revelation of the bone ornaments and mobiles for a wider shot when the family bring Grandpa into the room.
The humiliation and torture of Sally is written blow for blow by H&H. Starting with a clever reversal of expectation, they describe Leatherface approaching her with a knife. You think that he is going to slaughter her like a cow, but no, not yet:
Hitchhiker turns her palm up and quickly and expertly cuts deep into the tip of her index finger. Leatherface lifts her hand and with Hitchhiker’s assistance they force it into the Grandfather’s mouth.
Her will to survive is tested over 14 pages of script (pages 86-100 or 64-78 minutes). The moment she sees her opportunity she runs for it. However, H&H don’t let her get out without an obstacle or two. Blood pouring down her face, they write, she trips over the washtub and crashes through a window in a shower of glass.
When she reaches the highway the real world makes a surprise appearance in the shape of a cattle truck and a pick-up. Sally escapes in the back of the latter.
It’s a swift, and surprisingly neat end to such a lengthy, torturous ordeal. In just two minutes of screen time Sally leaps through a window, outruns the family, Leatherface is fatally wounded by his chain saw, and she is in the back of a pick up being driven away from this nightmare experience. This compares to over four pages of screenplay. Stylistically, the script deviates from how it has been presented so far. H&H begin directing the camera. This simulates how frantic the situation has become. Like a cap that has been let off, the film and all the tension are being released.
The Driver leaves the road and runs into a field.
Leatherface recovers the saw, sees Sally and the Driver running in nearly the opposite directions and squeals in terror, rage and pain and flailing the saw wildly in the air and now hobbling and bleeding profusely, he charges after Sally.
A battered, old pick up approaches beyond Sally
It has become traditional to linger on the victim’s success as the credits roll, but H&H’s finale is about the monster that’s left behind. That iconic silhouette is no accident.
Leatherface stands in the center of the highway squealing in maniac rage and wielding the chain saw with savage, idiot fury.
In conclusion H&H’s story is a simple one – five young people leave the city and become isolated from the real world as they knew it; and then from themselves. One by one they are killed until there is only one left. It was a novel idea at the time, but now it is a tired formula used by almost every slasher film. Regardless, this 1974 original still rises above all its competition because of its clarity.
On the page H&H lavish the reader with lots of extra scenes and gory details of the kills that are unmistakeable horror tropes. However, Tobe Hooper decided much of it held the story up and just weren’t necessary. More importantly, he decided to leave the bloodshed to our imagination and that choice gave the film its power. As a result the perceived feeling of many viewers, after watching TCM, is that it is a much more graphic film experience than it really is. Proving suggestion rather than details is what our eyes and ears need when we’re watching a movie. Hooper no doubt had this all in hand when he started shooting TCM, and the screenplay acted as both a road map and footnotes for his vision.
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Gene Jones
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat romantic ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land remindful of the Peoples Temple’s Jonestown. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, The Sacrament perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father (Gene Jones), the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Ti West at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and asked him about making realistic horror, the Jonestown Massacre and the Vice style of journalism.
Virginie Sélavy: With The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, you have developed an oblique approach to the horror genre. You continue with this here, although this time you dispense with supernatural elements altogether. Why were you interested in making a realistic horror film this time?
Ti West: Mostly because this is my sixth feature and all of them have had supernatural elements, so I wanted to do something that was strictly realistic. It’s more horrific than any other movie I’ve made but whether it’s technically a horror movie I don’t know. I just wanted to do something different from the light-hearted romantic comedy ghost story that was The Innkeepers.
Why did you decide to present the film as a Vice faux documentary, as opposed to just a faux documentary?
I thought incorporating a real brand would add to the realism of the movie. When you leave the theatre and you see that brand out in the world it brings you back to the film. I’m hoping that it’s a confrontational movie that people talk about and think about.
Ahead of its UK release, The Sacrament opens in cinemas across Canada via VSC (Video Services Corp) and in the USA via Magnet Releasing on 6 June 2014.
[SPOILER ALERT] When Vice gave you permission to use their logo, did they know exactly what you were going to do? Did they put any conditions to its use?
Yes. In the original script the journalists died, and Vice didn’t want them to die, but I think it was a good idea to change that because it was too bleak anyway. In the original ending, the pilot of the helicopter didn’t get shot. The journalists got in, they made it out, but the pilot said ‘I got to do this for Father’ and crashed the helicopter, and that’s how it ended. But as we started shooting, and as it became less of a horror movie and more of a drama thriller, and because the social relevance started to resonate, because the violence that we’d filmed was very realistic and grim, the movie started to feel very heavy and bleak. And the idea of them escaping, then being killed, was too nihilistic. It wasn’t something that I wanted to say to the world. The tone of the movie was far more emotional and serious to have this cheesy ending, where it was like, and at the last second we got you with one more scare. It wasn’t about scares. It felt that while it was clever it didn’t add to what we were doing. So that, combined with the fact that Vice were saying, don’t kill us in the movie, were the reasons for changing the end.
Why did they not want to be killed in the film?
Just bad vibes. Also, in fairness to them, what they do is some of the most interesting, non-partisan video journalism right now. They go right at the heart of these places and they’re independent, they’re coming from their own Vice thing. They’re very smart, very educated and very prepared for what they do. So to have that ending to some degree would undercut what they do. People have this idea of them being hip, but they’re smarter than this. They don’t just show up in Egypt and pull a microphone. So I think it was a fair thing to do and ultimately it benefits the movie to not have them die. [END OF SPOILER]
When Father blames them for the violence that follows their arrival it’s obviously quite disingenuous, but do you think that the journalists bear some responsibility in what happens?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think that’s specifically Vice. Part of the reason why I wanted to make a movie where the characters were from journalism is that there are all those blurred lines about the role of the media in those situations. Now, of course, Father is a psychopath, so you can’t really take what he says as fact. However, it’s true that when you look at people who are embedded in situations like Iraq or Egypt, they have this idea that they have to document whatever is happening. When it’s in another country it’s easy to say it’s not my problem. When it’s something that nobody knows about except the people who are there, I don’t know if it’s your problem or not, but no one else is going to do anything. And I think that’s where there’s this blurred line of what your role is. That’s why the characters are journalists, and not just the brother or the friend of the girl who is in the cult.
There is a real sense of tragedy in the film in the way the events unfold and the characters evolve, not just the journalists but the girl and Father too. How important was that sense of tragedy to you?
It was very important to me that the violence in the movie not be fun in the typical midnight horror movie where everybody is clapping. I wanted it to be very tragic and upsetting when the violence happens. And I wanted everyone in the movie to have their own goal that was very genuine. This movie, as are cults in general, Jonestown specifically, shows a very tragic situation, and it’s more complex than people understand. I hope people leave this movie a little shell-shocked, and that when there is horror in the movie you feel it as a realistic thing as opposed to some sort of escapism.
The music seems to follow the same trajectory as the evolution of the Vice journalists: you go from the urban cool of The Knife’s ‘Hearbeats’ as they travel to the island at the beginning, to something much more unobtrusive, sombre and disquieting. What was your approach to the music?
Yes, everything in the movie was supposed to slowly start decaying as it went on. It was my first time working with that composer, Tyler Bates, and it was great. All my movies have been with different composers so with each one I’ve tried something new for the first time. What was hard was that in something that is documentary-style like this, the movie fights the music unless it’s exactly right. We were trying to get the music that you would put in a documentary, and that would be a little sentimental, wearing emotions on its sleeve. But the most complicated, and the most important thing, was that we both felt that when all the horrific stuff starts happening, instead of having scary music we wanted to have tragic music and really bring out the emotional situation, which was a lot harder than it sounds.
The story is very close to what happened with the Peoples Temple in Jonestown.
Yes, I used that as a model because in American history it’s become part of pop culture. People vaguely know about it, but when you find out more, it’s one of the more intriguing and tragic things to have happened in American history in the 20th century. I’ve always been fascinated by it. So I used that as a model because I felt a lot of issues that made people join Peoples Temple in the 60s and 70s are still relevant today. I didn’t want to make something that was based too much on religion like Heaven’s Gate, where people thought they were going to get on an alien spacecraft and go off. That’s too far-fetched and it makes people think ‘cult’ and ‘crazy people’ immediately. What’s interesting about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and what I tried to bring into this movie, is that they’re just regular people who have been misled and taken advantage of. And I think that’s what makes it all the more horrific and the more frightening.
Is it significant that a lot of the community members are black in the film?
To some degree yes. I wanted it to be a mixed group of people, half and half. This is also because I think that what Father is exploiting is issues with power and race, and people who feel disillusioned. And certainly in Peoples Temple’s Jonestown, the majority of the population was black. So it was keeping in line with that.
Gene Jones is amazing as Father. How did you find him?
I didn’t know who I was going to cast for this role and I was watching an episode of Louis CK’s show where Gene plays a pharmacist in one scene. It’s a very small scene but I thought that was the guy. The first scene we shot was the big interview scene. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We had 200 extras, it’s a 12-page dialogue scene, a massive undertaking. So I told him, let’s just try it, see what happens, then we’ll make a list of everything that goes wrong and we’ll make it right. Pretty much what’s in the movie is what happened on that first take. He came in, the crowd went crazy, he sat down, did a seventeen-minute take and didn’t drop one line. And all the reactions from the crowd – we didn’t tell them to do that, they just did it. It was one of those magical experiences where it all fell into place. It was also amazing to see all the extras react like that because they didn’t know what the movie was about. They were just there for that one scene, they didn’t know the whole story. But while it was great to see them all say ‘yes Father, yes Father’, on the other hand it was also terrifying because they were agreeing with everything he was saying. The idea of the movie was that everything he says should make sense. He’s not actually doing it but what he says sounds amazing. So they’re all responding in the way anyone would to a cult leader who’s promising them these great things. It was one of the most unique and exciting days I’ve ever had making movies.
What he says is mesmerising because you do find yourself agreeing with him despite knowing what he is.
Yes, and that’s one of the big theses of the movie. That’s what I wanted people to take away from the movie: these are not crazy cult people, these are people who were misled by someone who is very manipulative.
[SPOILER ALERT] He is manipulative but you also get the impression that he may believe in what he says.
That’s questionable. He certainly acts like he does. The same thing with Jim Jones in real life and this movie is that they all commit mass suicide by drinking the Kool-Aid except him and it makes you wonder – was he a coward? Did he really believe they were all going to heaven or did he not? To me that’s’ really interesting, this guy who stands there telling them one thing and does another. There are enough elements in the movie to say that he does believe what he’s saying, and enough to say that he doesn’t. Like Jim Jones, he keeps himself separate from his entire congregation and we’ll never know why, it’s something that will always remain ambiguous. Those are the things that make the story very complicated, and ultimately tragic and horrifying.
Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps
Cast: Klaus Tange, Jean-Michel Vovk, Sylvia Camarda, Sam Louwyck
Belgium, France, Luxembourg 2013
French directing duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have developed a style in which they take elements of the giallo and use them to compose intensely sensual cinematic experiences. They made their feature debut with Amer in 2009, a near-experimental exploration of a woman’s troubled psyche set in the south of France. Their follow-up, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, moves north to Brussels and into the obsessive mind of a man looking for his missing wife.
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani talked to Virginie Sélavy at the London Film Festival in October 2013 and told her about using the language of giallo to give audiences a filmic orgasm.
Virginie Sélavy: How do you see the relationship of your films to giallo? Are they homage, distillation, artistic commentary?
Bruno Forzani: Definitely not homage. It’s more that we reinterpret and re-use the giallo language to tell our story.
Hélène Cattet: We use it as a tool, especially because there are strong iconographic elements whose meaning we can subvert, for instance, the figure of the assassin, which is a very striking, shocking figure. We change its meaning so it takes on a personal significance in our story.
You do the same thing with sound: you’ve used extracts from giallo films for your score. It must be difficult to re-use music that was originally composed for something specific in other films. How did you choose the tracks?
BF: Initially most of them were in the script.
HC: They inspired us as we were writing the script.
You mean that as you were writing the script you were thinking about those pieces of music?
BF: Yes, exactly. We want to use music 100% and give it all of its original power, not just compile a jukebox. So we have to find the right balance in relation to a modern film. A couple of the pieces didn’t work because they made the scenes too kitsch. One was the music for the inspector’s story at the beginning, and the other was for the opening credits. As the scene is cut all the time, it interrupted the rise of the melody and it ruined it.
Does the story inspire the music or is it the other way around?
HC: The music inspires the way a sequence develops. It gives us a rhythm, and ideas too. We listen to music as we write, and all of a sudden there’s one track that strikes us, so we play it again and again, and it inspires the rhythm.
BF: And images too.
What is the most remarkable music for you in the film?
BF: ‘Maddalena’. That’s the one when Dan goes inside the walls. It comes from the film Maddalena by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, about a priest who falls in love with a woman, and is lost between faith and passion and doesn’t know which to choose. I was very keen to have this music in the film because it’s representative of a period in Ennio Morricone’s career, and it works with the film’s themes, in relation to fantasy – we hear all these women sighing. There’s also the use of the organ that you find in the music he wrote for Westerns. For me it was the most important music. It was the hardest to get but we managed it in the end.
HC: For me it was the music from the opening credits that we didn’t keep! It was the very first piece we thought of for the film and it had inspired the first drafts. It was from Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. It created the atmosphere there was at the very beginning. We started writing in 2002 and the film was very different then. It was more like a whodunit, and through the years it turned more into a ‘who am I’. The whodunit aspect of Seven Blood-Stained Orchids was really present at first.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh also seems to be a major influence.
BF: Yes, completely. The sequence when Barbara explodes on the glass body is like the flashback in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. It’s a scene that really struck me and we tried to magnify it – not to redo it because there’s no point, but to be inspired by it as if we were dreaming it in a different way. And there’s also a note on the bunch of flowers, and it’s the note that Edwige Fenech receives in the film. Sergio Martino’s films are always about vice, fantasy and sado-masochism, so it fit the subject matter perfectly.
Amer, and your contribution to The ABCs of Death, O for Orgasm, even more so, were already concerned with pain and pleasure, and sex and death. What draws you to those themes?
BF: We see the films we make as an experience. We try to give our viewers a filmic orgasm. There is definitely that aspect, to give pleasure to people.
HC: It allows us to approach the story in a sensual, physical way, to play with very strong feelings of attraction and repulsion.
BF: They are two instincts, two impulses, and as we’re trying to do something sensorial, connecting those two impulses strengthens the audience’s involvement in our sensorial experimentation. And audiences are confronted with their own impulses, which they may reject – violence, desire – and that places them in a slightly ambiguous position. For me, a film is not like a motorway, it’s about getting a bit lost among primitive things. We try to play with that, embrace that side of things 100% and not have any moral judgement in there, just connect with the impulse, whether it’s fear or love.
You seem more interested in the sensory experience than in the narrative.
HC: It’s a little as in Amer. We use all of those filmic elements to tell the story. To tell it sensually first, but there is a meaning in the end. The story is told by what is experienced through the sounds and images. We try and convey the ambiguity of a character through stylistic effects. The split screen, for instance, may look nice, but it’s there to actually show something.
BF: We construct the film in two ways. The first is the sensorial way, which corresponds to the first viewing of the film: you experience the film physically, then it sinks in. We wrote the film so it could be seen several times and people would discover different layers each time. We’re very influenced by Satoshi Kon. There are several levels of interpretation in the way he writes, and each time you see one of his films you discover new things. We wrote our film in the same way. We were also strongly influenced by David Lynch when we were teenagers. The first time we saw his films, we didn’t understand them, but the experience of them was very strong. It was a very powerful world. And gradually his films have become clearer and clearer. It’s a similar principle.
There seems to be an intense concern with seeing inside of objects, buildings and bodies in the film.
BF: Yes, there is definitely something obsessive about it. We are obsessed with close-ups, with trying to be very close to the viewers and penetrating them. We want the film to penetrate people. In the sound, we worked a lot on the bass frequencies, because bass goes into you. This film is really obsessed with penetration!
HC: And with intrusion too. That was already the case in Amer.
It’s a very baroque film, with this fascination with surface illusions, with doubles, mirroring and artifice, and of course the luxuriance of motifs.
HC: Yes, completely. That’s how we saw it. We were very inspired by Art Nouveau, and as we live in Brussels there’s a lot of that. We really wanted to film inside those Art Nouveau houses, with all those lavish motifs that fit so well with the labyrinthine aspect that we wanted for the film. It inspired us, not only in the visual motifs, but in the space and the mise en scène too – you get really lost.
Architecture is very important in giallo, but you have really found your own architectural world here. I loved the idea that the building is alive.
BF: For us, the question was always, is the building the main character, or is the main character inside the building? Where is the inside, and where is the outside?
HC: We played with the idea that the building is like a Rubik’s Cube, and the walls move, everything moves, and in the character’s mind something is triggered.
How did you choose the locations for Amer and Strange Colour?
BF: It was very natural. Amer was shot where I grew up in the south of France, on the border with Italy. And we made this one where we met, in the city where we live. So in each case it came from something personal.
It looks like every single shot has been carefully composed, with the same obsessive mindset as your characters. Do you feel there is an obsessive quality to your filmmaking?
HC: That’s the way it was visually, but also sonically, and that was even worse because we had no sounds at all – we shoot without sound – so we had to recreate absolutely everything. So, for instance, things like breathing, things that audiences don’t even notice, but will notice if they’re not there.
How long did it take you to make the film?
BF: All in all, 11 years. We started writing in 2002.
HC: Then we started the preparatory work in 2010.
This film felt closer to O for Orgasm than Amer.
HC: We made O when we were waiting to find out if we’d be able to make Strange Colour. It had been a few years since we’d last shot something, so it was perfect to get back into things. We tested things for Strange Colour in O, things like the slow-motion ghost-camera, so maybe that’s why.
What influenced the title of the film specifically?
HC: It refers to the themes of the film, while being surreal. And it brings to mind The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (aka The Case of the Bloody Iris) and All the Colours of the Dark.
That’s another major reference in the film.
BF: Yes, we use the music from All the Colours of the Dark in the credits. There is a gorgeous nightmare scene in that film. And it’s about a woman who is bored, alone all day while her husband is at work, and our film is like the other side. She goes into this sect to discover pleasure because she has no pleasure with her husband, and our film is a little like…
HC:…the husband’s point de view!
BF: I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, exactly!
Have you thought about how you are going to develop the form you have created with Amer and Strange Colour in the future?
BF: I don’t know. After Amer there were people who said, ‘I don’t know what you can do after this, it can’t be renewed’. But then we made this. It’s the same themes, the same world, but it’s different. There is a third part, but we won’t do it straightaway. We’ll try and do something else in between. We’d like to do something that doesn’t come from us, because this film took so much energy, so much life. And then we’d like to go back to something personal to conclude Amer and Strange Colour.
Cast: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel)
When considering Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 film adaptation of Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear (first rendered for the big screen in 1953 by Henri-Georges Clouzot), I think it’s worth discussing what I did one month prior to laying my eyes on it.
On May 25 of that year, history was about to be made. Friend and colleague Sandi Krawchenko (KY58-AM radio news reporter) and I, the Winnipeg radio station’s precocious 18-year-old movie critic (still on the tail end of high school), were ushered past the hugest line-up for any movie I’d ever seen in my life by the house manager of the Grant Park Cinema. This grand former National General Cinerama hardtop still had its humungous curved screen, which would prove ideal to view the movie we were about to see.
Sandi would be doing a news item and I’d be providing a review. This was big news, after all. Legendary Variety scribe Art Murphy in his box-office-slanted industry review uttered sage words he’d never before slammed onto the page via an Underwood typewriter. Referring to the earning potential of this new movie, he predicted, ‘The sky’s the limit.’
And so it was that the movies would change – forever.
Oddly, I didn’t much care for Star Wars. About an hour into the movie, it started to bore me silly. God knows I loved science fiction and had seen all the Buck Rogers serials from the 40s, every notable SF picture (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the 50s and numerous dystopian masterworks from the 60s and 70s, but for me, it seemed like I was watching a dull, poorly plotted and far too insanely paced version of everything I’d seen and loved. For me, the only saving graces at the time were the indisputably astounding SFX and Harrison Ford.
That was it. I was pretty much infused with an overwhelming feeling of, ‘What’s the big deal?’ (Over the decades since, I’ve attempted to see the movie with fresh eyes, but it’s never really improved for me.) That was an incredibly depressing summer for a precocious movie lover. The same week Star Wars was breaking records, Smokey and the Bandit opened, and its returns, though not sky’s the limit, were definitely through the roof.
The month leading up to my first helping of Sorcerer was a litany of dull, check-your-brain-at-the-door blockbusters and sadly, this kept up for pretty much the rest of my life, though it was at the most egregious levels throughout the 1980s.
* * *
Finally, Sorcerer happened. One month after the crashing disappointment I experienced with Star Wars, I was happy again. Though I’d already seen Clouzot’s Wages of Fear two years earlier in repertory, I somehow had no idea that Friedkin’s film was a remake. All I knew was that it was the latest Friedkin and it had a really cool poster and ad slicks.
The film opens with four slam-bang stories, which each introduce the characters. Never did I have an idea where Sorcerer was going to go during the opening 20-or-so minutes. Even at that early age I preferred being surprised and loathed telegraphing in my movie experiences, and/or even worse, structural tent posts that pretty much told me what I was about to see and where it was going – both sins committed by the boring Star Wars.
During that virginal plunge, as on subsequent sloppy seconds, thirds and fourths, etc. and even now, in the brand new digital restoration overseen by Friedkin, Sorcerer was always and still remains a movie that repeatedly clubs you with a two-by-four across the teeth.
Each opening tale pulsates, as the entire film does, with Tangerine Dream’s heavy electronic score. Friedkin whizzes us all over the world – from Jerusalem (featuring Amidou as a Palestinian terrorist who sets off a deadly bomb), New Mexico (wherein Francisco Rabal presides over a deadly hit), Paris (charting a bank scandal that leads to the flight of bank president Bruno Cremer) and finally, New Jersey (with Roy Scheider as the getaway car driver in an armed robbery gone very wrong).
At this point, during my first helping of the movie, I was still blissfully unaware of Sorcerer’s connection to The Wages of Fear. What I recognized, from so many 70s movies I’d already seen, was that I was watching a hard-driving crime picture full of the kind of existential male angst that tantalized me even as a kid.
I was in Heaven.
Once the movie collects the four men in the hellhole one-mule-town in the middle of Nowheresville, South America, and we follow their squalid, desperate lives in hiding, I do recall that Sorcerer was starting to feel awfully familiar. Once it’s established that the American oil mine has exploded nearby, I realized I was watching a remake. By this point, it mattered not. I was hooked.
From here, Friedkin stays close to the Clouzot. The four desperate men are hired to drive two trucks, one of the vehicles christened with the name ‘Sorcerer’ (no need to spoil how and why for those who’ve not yet partaken), and transport dangerous cartons of nitro across 200 miles of the most rugged territory imaginable. The goal is to get the deadly explosive to the burning rig to blow it out.
Where Friedkin departs from the French Master is in the amount of money he has to play with. Picture, sound and production design are out of this world and in sharp contrast to Clouzot’s, which is a first rate reproduction of South America in France, no less, but sans the tropical jungles and sheer magnitude of the mountains Friedkin gets to play with. Clouzot himself spared no time and expense and indeed, like Friedkin, went over budget. Mind you, not to the tune of over $20million in 1977 dollars.
The drive through the jungles with narrow unkempt roads and breakneck cliff sides is scary as hell. Somehow, Clouzot’s is nail-bitingly suspenseful, to be sure, but Friedkin pushes the envelope with everything his talent, and, frankly, budget can buy. He’s made an existential action picture, but it’s so deliciously over the top that biting our nails is a mere appetizer to the jolts he gives us to inspire the expulsion of heavier loads from within our bowels.
Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green add in a brief, tense and violent confrontation with bandits and don’t explore the tale’s homoerotic angle (which Friedkin needed, no doubt, to save up for Cruising), but it’s basically the same story. The big difference is that Clouzot puts more energy into the characters, treating us to lengthy dialogue scenes and a faith-based Catholic subtext, whereas Friedkin gives us the simple American brushstrokes of what each of the men represents and allows action – not just the manly derring-do, but the physical manner in which the characters conduct themselves – to provide a wholly unique approach to character.
The final haunting ride to the mine stuns us in both versions, but Friedkin places a great deal of emphasis upon a series of horrific optical effects involving double and triple exposures and a variety of colour effects, which again, plunge us closer to horror rather than suspense.
I find it especially interesting that Friedkin employs certain stylistic flourishes one would more likely find in a scary movie, and after seeing the film several times, it makes perfect sense for his terse, stripped-down approach to be juxtaposed with dollops of shock galore. He carves out much of the overt subtext, which Clouzot so expertly weaves into his adaptation, and replaces it with pure visceral terror.
What could be more infused with dread than a suicide run? What could be more terrifying than driving over impossible terrain with nitro in your truck? What could possibly be more downright frightening than the sight of a swinging rope bridge with rotting planks in a torrential downpour with rushing rapids and rocks just below?
When one thinks back on The Exorcist, some of the most chilling aspects of the film are in its first half when Linda Blair’s Regan is being poked, prodded and near-tortured during the endless series of medical tests under the glare of fluorescent hospital lights. These sequences and Friedkin’s approach to Sorcerer are perfectly in keeping with a Val Lewton-esque approach to horror – the things that really scare us are the unknown; the things we are chilled by are the everyday elements within our environment that become aberrations of what we expect. One needs only to listen to Friedkin’s superb analysis of The Leopard Man on the DVD commentary track of Warner Home Video’s legendary box set, The Val Lewton Collection, to find corroboration of this influence (in addition to Friedkin’s early beginnings in news, public affairs and documentary).
Sorcerer, as it turned out, was a complete and utter disaster at the box office during that summer of 1977. Even the critical response ranged from damning at worst, to non-committal at best. I recall sitting in a huge 1000-seat cinema on an opening day showing that had no more than a handful of psychopaths in the audience. Adjusted for inflation, Sorcerer remains, in today’s dollars, a $200-million picture with a gross box office of about half that amount.
Even if it had been released in the pre-Jaws exhibition-distribution environment, which opened the floodgates for the likes of Star Wars to come close to destroying the movies as we knew them, one doubts it would have made that much more coin. However, it might have been enough so that eventual ancillaries would have been more properly exploited to move Sorcerer closer and quicker to a figure far less in the red, if not in a slight black.
The film’s life in home video was spotty during the Beta/VHS era, and once DVD came along, Universal Pictures (one of two studios, the other being Paramount, that were needed to finance it) released an insulting, cropped standard frame version that looked like it had been mastered in a one-light colour timing from a one-inch master used for VHS.
Now, the wrongs might become right again. Friedkin has been able to supervise the 4K digital transfer and restoration to digital Blu-Ray from the original elements. Luckily, for some, a limited theatrical release of Sorcerer awaits us prior to its late-April Blu-ray release in North America.
Sorcerer is released on Blu-ray (R A/1) by Warner Home Video on 22 April 2014. The disc comes only in special packaging with a book and no other added value items.
Here in the Dominion of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Bell Lightbox will be screening Sorcerer theatrically on 12, 15 and 18 April 2014 as a TIFF Cinematheque Special Screening. This is part of a grand spring series that includes a new 35mm restoration of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, new 35mm prints of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Nagisa Ôshima’s Boy, Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a new digital restoration of the 248 minute ‘roadshow’ version of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, new 4K digital restorations of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House/Hausu, John Sturges’s The Great Escape, Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, and 35mm Archival prints of Humberto Solas’s Lucia and most excitingly, H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear.
After the demise of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, former sound engineer Chris Carter and performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti formed Chris & Cosey. Pioneers of industrial music, they were among the first bands to fuse electronic and acoustic sounds, and went on to become hugely influential in techno and electronica, releasing albums through Rough Trade, Nettwerk and Wax Trax. They have continued to release albums on their own label, Conspiracy International, while staging a number of works at museums worldwide, performing as both Chris & Cosey and Carter Tutti. We had the pleasure of catching their live scoring of Murnau’s Faust as part of the Scanner: Lachrimae night at the BFI last December. For Record Store Day on April 19 they release a limited edition CD of Carter Tutti remixes of Chris & Cosey. They play in Copenhagen on May 16, Stockholm on May 18, Barcelona (Sonar Festival) on June 12 and Berlin on August 2. For more information, please visit the Carter Tutti website. Below Chris and Cosey tell us about the 10 films that mean the most to them.
1. The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955) Cosey: An Ealing classic is always perfect to provide the atmosphere for a relaxing Sunday afternoon’s viewing. The film evokes the kind of warm humour of that time – no game play, no hidden agendas, just great, understated comic interaction between wonderful actors (Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, etc.) playing loveable rogues trying, and failing, to outwit their sweet elderly landlady (Katie Johnson). So very British and so of that era. Chris: I love this film for all the reasons Cosey has said, but for me, being a North Londoner brought up in the 1950s, the locations give it an even deeper nostalgic resonance that harks back to naive, lost, rose-tinted days.
2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) Chris: One of my all-time favourite films, including probably the best electronic soundtrack… ever. When I left school my first job was as an assistant sound recordist, and this was one of the very first films I worked on. Well, when I say worked, I spent maybe two days ‘helping out’ on location at the Chelsea Drugstore in the King’s Road for the record shop scenes. Cosey: Aaaah, the film that spawned the copycat skinhead gang in my hometown of Hull. The sight of white rolled-up trousers, braces, cherry red boots, etc., was a sight to behold. Though the violence that came with it wasn’t welcome – albeit quite the norm in Hull at the time. Thankfully they were acquaintances of ours, alongside the Hells Angels of the time. All ‘outsiders’ together. An amazing film that I happily revisit.
3. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) Chris: This was one of the first really big-screen, 70mm, Dolby Surround blockbuster movies Cosey and I went to see at the Odeon Leicester Square in London – very romantic. I remember everyone in the auditorium ducking when the Star Destroyer first came on the screen. Later, I managed to get hold of the audio from the film, and if you listen carefully to some of the early Throbbing Gristle recordings (the live tracks) you can hear all sorts of Star Wars clips that me and Sleazy (Peter Christopherson) were spinning in from cassette – bleeps, explosions, bits of dialogue. Here’s a funny six degrees of separation: in 1977 I was also working part time in a furniture store in Hampstead, London, when a buyer from Lucas Films came in and ordered a dozen or so expensive Italian black high-backed chairs. I was tasked with delivering them to Elstree studios, which I did, right onto the Star Wars set. The chairs were used in the ‘Death Star conference room’ scenes with Darth Vader and Peter Cushing.
4. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) Chris: I sometimes wish I could un-see or un-remember certain movies, just so I could watch them again, as if for the first time, to re-experience that combination of dread, awe and wonder of a really great thriller or horror film. It’s an amazing movie – even more so considering it was all done without CGI. Cosey: Chris and Nick (our son) were avid fans of the Alien movies. They went to the all-nighter and the ‘Alien War’ experience together at the Trocadero Piccadilly Circus, where the Alien films were brought to life. It was scary as hell – I heard the screams from outside, and some people who couldn’t cope were spat out early. The actors were from nearby West End shows, and were fantastic and took to their roles with great relish.
5. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) Chris: We saw the original 70mm print in 1979 in San Francisco, at The Northpoint Theatre, I think. It was one of Throbbing Gristle’s many regular film outings. From the first surround sounds of the helicopter and strains of The Doors’ ‘The End’, we all kept looking over at each other while the movie was playing and we were like… WTF! Monte Cazazza was with us, Vale from Research, there were about 10 of us. It was one of those unforgettable ‘shared experiences’, like when you drop acid with friends. We were all a bit speechless afterwards.
6. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) Chris: An iconic movie in so many ways – the concepts, the art direction, the production values and of course the music. As with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, in my mind at least, it was one of the first non-CGI future-set films that was presented in such a way that it all seemed utterly believable and required almost no suspension of disbelief. Cosey: Such atmosphere, the coldness, the fear, and deeply sad. It just hits so many emotional trigger points for me. We wrote our track ‘Raining Tears of Blood’ after watching the closing sequences with Rutger Hauer’s ‘tears in the rain’ speech.
7. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986) Cosey: I was so drawn into this world, partly by my own tendencies, but primarily by Lynch’s amazing ability to present the depths of desire, despair and beyond. I love films that inspire me and stay with me until that inspiration has been fulfilled. ‘Deep Velvet’ (from our 1989 album Trust) was a direct result of watching this film. Chris: Classic Lynch. Weird characters, surreal imagery, uncomfortable scenarios, thought-provoking and sexy as hell… probably his best – well, of that period.
8. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) Cosey: When I first watched this I was in two minds whether I could enjoy it simply because it captured the 70s porn industry I’d experienced first-hand quite well. But I soon got over that, and it was precisely because I had such specific reference points and empathy, that the film is kind of special for me… all the craziness of those times. The seduction/manipulation techniques, sexual performance expectations and cavalier attitudes. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun too. So the balance is pretty good. Chris: Love it! We watched this (again!) recently and it’s held up wonderfully well as a pretty accurate time capsule of the period. Though watching it with Cosey can be ‘interesting’ as she’s constantly analysing and deconstructing the scenes.
9. Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) Chris: One of the only horror films that freaked me out so much the first time I saw it that I had to close my eyes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of creepiness too. Dark Water (2002, also by Hideo Nakata) had a similar effect on me. The Japanese do horror so well. Cosey: Spine-chillingly scary. One of the most iconic and referenced horror films.
10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001–03) Chris: Being fundamentally a hippy at heart, my later teenage years naturally involved dropping acid and reading LOTR countless times, and when the trilogy was released I wholeheartedly embraced the films too. They are wonderfully well-made, totally engrossing films, especially when viewed as a single body of work. We’ve watched the extended versions, in one sitting, a few times, including once with Sleazy. He wouldn’t admit it to many people (it probably wouldn’t sit well with the Coil mythology) but he liked nothing better than to have a tray of snacks, a bottle of port, a large-screen TV and an evening of Lord of the Rings – well, that or Transformers: The Movie (yes, seriously!). Cosey: I always think of Sleazy when we watch these. He was totally overwhelmed by them to the point of tears, and proclaimed that in his view all children should see these films so they had an understanding of humanity as an alternative to organised religion and consumer culture.
Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey
By Joesph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik
Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine
By John Szpunar
Looking at Movies
By Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan
616pp. & DVD £34.99
As I compose this instalment of Cine Lit, I have wafting in the background the mellifluous tones of Miles Davis, from the superlative third box-set of Jazz on Film recordings, which this time covers the French New Wave from 1957 to 1962. Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris’s continuing labour of love in bringing us these terrifically remastered gems from vinyl obscurity is to be lauded and applauded, and, like the other two sets, receives top ratings in this column. This new addition features The Modern Jazz Quartet’s scoring of No Sun in Venice, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Les liaisons dangereuses and Des femmes disparaissent, Miles Davis with his classic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, Michel Legrand’s beautifully constructed score for Eva, Martial Solal’s unforgettable Breathless compositions and Barney Wilen’s Un témoin dans la ville. Essential and unmissable, the recordings are enhanced immeasurably by Selwyn’s well-researched and stellar accompanying text.
There have been a number of recent publications for consideration, ranging from the sublime to the (near) ridiculous. In the former category is The Film Festival Reader, a collection of essays and speculations that should be considered required reading for anyone planning to dip their toes into the relatively new cinematic waters that are forming around the academic discipline of ‘festival studies’. The editor, Dina Iordanova, has been a key player in contributing to the field as a lecturer at St. Andrews University, where in-house publisher St. Andrew’s University Press have provided considerable and commendable support to FF Studies in a similar way to that of the University of Amsterdam Press, where Marijke de Valck – another key player in FF Studies – is based. Indeed, both have contributed essays to this book, which serves as a sort of ‘state of the art’ survey of work in the area. All of the essays have been previously published in various journals and are collected together here for the first time. Rigorous, informed, challenging and thought-provoking, it puts the emphasis on the historical, sociological and anecdotal, without too much excess baggage, from the usual academic suspects such as Deleuze, Žižek, Foucault, Bourdieu et al. In short, an approachable and informative read.
Which brings me to the (near) ridiculous, and I mean this in a most approving way. Headpress – as readers of this column will be aware – are specialists in trawling (crawling!) through the transgressive and liminal spaces of cinematic geography, with a deliciously perverse approach that favours the experiential over the theoretical. Their authors are cinematic miners at the coal heap of trash, extreme and libidinous film. Two recent publications provide further evidence of this commitment, with fulsome tomes adding to this ongoing agenda of providing the reader with information about filmic texts and activities that they didn’t even know they wanted – or needed. Bleeding Skull is a geek’s bible of 1980s trash-horror films that have been recorded – very cheaply – on VHS and obsessively collected by the authors. The entries in this collection were culled from their website and these 300 reviews range from 555 to Le lac des morts vivants. The publisher has also given us the Szupnar book, Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine, which documents the diehards who introduced many of these films into the culture by way of the pre-internet, pre-blog punkish energy of the fanzine. Utilising illustrations, interviews and discussion, the book maps out the territory from Famous Monsters to Rue Morgue and to the further shores of luridness exemplified by the likes of Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. Shelve these books alongside your copies of Slimetime, Offbeat, X-Cert and Land of a Thousand Balconies.
Finally, a brief word about Looking at Movies. I met with some film student readers of ES who asked – given text book prices – what might be the best value book for a comprehensive overview of movie methods, analysis and history. The standards, of course, are Bordwell/Thompson or Cook or Giannetti – all excellent – but in terms of price, breadth, and with a very useful DVD explaining key ideas and filmmaking methods, the Barsam/Monahan is hard to beat and remains my choice. By the way, don’t let the student designation fool you, there is plenty within for all of us.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
Best described somewhere on the Blu-ray extras as ’Bill and Ted’s Naked Lunch’, John Dies at the End is the latest Don Coscarelli film in a nigh-on 40-year body of work. He doesn’t make perfect films, the early ones tend to oscillate between ramshackle goofiness and arresting surrealism, but he does make winningly inventive ones, crafted against the odds on tight budgets. Phantasm and Beastmaster are genuine cult classics, and hell, if you don’t love Bubba Ho-Tep there’s just something wrong with you.
In a phone interview conducted at 9am Los Angeles time, Mark Stafford talked to Don Coscarelli about filming a spider crowd massacre, the Presley estate’s reaction to Bubba Ho-Tep, and how Tarantino has changed indie filmmaking.
Mark Stafford: I first saw John Dies at the End at the London Film Festival a couple of years back. That was fantastic, but it’s been a long, long road to this DVD/Blu-ray. Was the cut you first screened at Sundance different to the LFF version?
Don Coscarelli: It was an interesting process because we filmed in digital format, so consequentially after every festival screening I was able to make adjustments to the movie. I showed it at Sundance and I made some changes, and we showed it at South By South West and made some more changes, and probably by the time we showed it in London that was the final version… I don’t think they’d let me make changes that late into the process.
It becomes clear watching the extras that you do a lot of takes. Was that always part of your process, or has the technology encouraged that?
As I’ve made more films I think I’ve made less takes. Early on I took a lot because I didn’t have confidence in myself. It was always: ‘that was pretty good, can we get a better one?’ But it all depends. Some actors, by the way, seem to get better the more takes they do, others get worse. It’s the actor. But I do like to shoot lots of takes because movies are like a puzzle that’s built in the editing room, and the more material you have to work with the better. Sometimes you’ll get an odd look from an actor during a take, which doesn’t have any meaning at the time, but that you can use in the edit to make a point. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many as Stanley Kubrick did…
John Dies at the End relies a lot on the casting, which is great. How long was the process? Did you get everybody you wanted?
Generally yes. I’d worked with a couple of the actors before, like Angus Scrimm. And I knew Paul Giamatti, and he came on board very early, to help also as a producer. There was a built-in challenge making this movie: we had limited resources, so I had to find some unknown guys for the two leads, and as a horror director the most terrifying part of making the movie was whether I could find those two actors. The first few days of casting I’d only seen actors who were wrong for the part, who’d just butcher the dialogue, and I began to question whether I could make the film. Luckily Chase Williamson wandered in, this guy who had just come out of college and had never been in anything at all. And then, to compound the challenge, first day of shooting he has to come in and shoot eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti as his first scene ever. It all worked out.
How much of the film was locked down on the page before shooting began? Some of the stuff on disc gives the impression of a film being made on the wing, on the fly…
I pretty much follow the script but sometimes the most interesting elements in a movie happen by accident, when one of your collaborators does something extraordinary. An actor, a set designer, a cameraman will do something with lighting, and you have to try to stay open. The challenge of making movies is that you have this finite amount of time. Every day you have your 12 hours to get the shots done, and you don’t always do it, and being an editor I know how crippled I’ll be if I don’t get those shots… So you want to have it pre-planned, you want to have it organised, and you also want to be spontaneous, but usually spontaneity takes time, to investigate where the spontaneity takes you. It’s a juggling act at all times, and just talking about it gets me exhausted.
I haven’t read John Dies at the End, the novel, but watching the film again I noticed how much it shares some bits of business with your other work, the interdimensional travel, insects, the way that Phantasm has a severed finger and John Dies at the End has a couple of pills that turn into flying bugs…
Reading the book was exciting for me. What was nice about it was this brilliant young author exploring themes and topics that I’ve been interested in for decades, but with this fresh voice, especially the way he writes dialogue. I thought the book handled those themes in a way that would connect with a modern audience. So I jumped at the chance to get the rights and make a film out of it. Then it became a challenge because he had so many wonderful ideas, and unless you’re Coppola or Cameron or Scorsese, who can make three-hour movies, you’re limited to a very tight time frame of maybe 90-100 minutes. Trying to find a way to shoehorn that book into a tight screenplay was difficult. I had to leave a lot of good stuff behind, unfortunately.
You said onstage at the LFF that your method was to go through the book and cut out anything that cost a million dollars.
That’s true, there were things that, with a huge effort, we could still never really approach. Still, I did look for ways to do that. There was this massive sequence in the book that I just loved (the spider trench massacre), and there was just no way we could create that in the movie. But I was able to get a friend of mine (David Hartman) to come in and do a little animated version of that sequence. Though I was worried for a while that that wouldn’t be accepted by fans of the book…
John Dies at the End is based on David Wong’s novel, Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story. Is there a pile of books by your bed waiting to be adapted?
There aren’t that many. It’s hard to find a book that suits my taste and where I can see a viable path to getting it funded and made. What was great about the Joe Lansdale story was that, other than the mummy, it was a pretty simple story that you could make on a budget. Some of the best moments of that film are just the two actors talking in the bedroom, and that’s pretty simple to shoot. I’m always looking for something like that. John Dies at the End is a lot more ambitious but I’m always reading, looking for projects.
Did you ever get any reaction from the Presley estate to Bubba?
We did get a reaction, I don’t know how legitimate this story is. We were always a little concerned that we’d gone too far with the movie and that we’d get an adverse reaction from the estate. I don’t think it’s any secret that they guard their intellectual property, trademarks and images very carefully. Luckily, I’m assuming, they approached it like everyone else did, that Bubba Ho-Tep was a piece of fiction, a parody. But I did hear that one of the folks who worked on our crew called over there just before the movie came out to see if they could get co-sponsorship on some kind of promotion. It was a completely ill-advised move and I was really angry when I found out about it. But apparently, when they called the response that they got was just, ‘oh, we’ve heard about that movie, we really want to see it!’ The thing is that the movie and the book had a really good spirit, and despite the state, the terrible predicament Elvis is in Bubba, we really did treat him and his legacy respectfully. I think we all looked to the better side of Elvis. That was the very nature of it, we couldn’t accept the fact that Elvis died the way he reportedly did. We had to say, ’he was the man, he wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t die that way! He had to die on his feet kicking mummy arse!’
You’ve been an independent filmmaker for 40 years, what do you think’s changed the most over that time?
There have been all kinds of changes. I think the worst is that it’s just much more difficult to get films funded these days. There used to be a lot less films being made. It’s all Quentin Tarantino’s fault, for making being an independent filmmaker cool. Millions of young people across the world decided ‘I’m gonna be a director!’ They’re all making movies and the competition is fierce. It seems to me that back in the day there was a lot more experimentation, a lot more willingness to take risks. There were always young filmmakers out there trying to figure out some new way of making a movie, it was exciting. There were a lot of movies that were popular back then, but wouldn’t be considered viable now, like The Last Picture Show or, say the Truffaut movies that were very simple but not exploitative, and they seem to have gone away.
I once interviewed Franco Nero, talking about the 60s, and all his stories seemed to be like ‘my hairdresser mentioned to me that her boyfriend had written a script,’ and four weeks later they’re shooting a movie. These days everything seems to take years. I asked him what the difference was between then and now, and he said ‘We used to have producers.’
There’s something to that. It’s gotten strange in that the divide has grown. There used to be a lot of pictures in the middle range, or lower middle range. These days you have the micro-budget on one side and the mega-budget on the other, so you either have to make your movie for two bucks or for two hundred million. That limits the kind of movies that can be made.
Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge movie Ms.45 is all too often forgotten by film fans. Maybe it’s because, in the UK, it never made it onto the Department of Public Prosecution’s final banned list in the early 80s, like Ferrara’s iconic video nasty Driller Killer (1979). Or maybe it’s because, for exploitation fans, it’s just not as grisly as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). What is certain is that Joe Delia’s score has never received any real appreciation outside the context of the film because, up until now, it has never been released.
The Ms.45 LP sleeve artwork by Alice X. Zhang and sleeve notes by composer Joe Delia.
Ms. 45 is the New York tale of Thana (the late Zoë Lund), a mute seamstress who survives not one rape attack, but two: first in the street, and then, when she gets home, a burglar, waiting in her apartment, repeats the ordeal. What follows is a shocking one-woman rampage against all male chauvinists.
Joe Delia started out in music in the late 60s, touring in backing bands for the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers. In the 70s he studied composition, and got his big break with Ferrara’s first feature, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976). His career in film and TV now spans almost four decades.
The score of Ms.45 was his third feature-length effort. He had the tough job of jamming out the real sounds of New York, as well as making up for the glaring silence of our mute anti-heroine. For example, down-tuned guitars cling to a racing post-punk rhythm, intensifying the horror as Thana is dragged from the street in the first attack. Whereas, when the burglar points his gun at her, the shrill of a saxophone, like a crazed seagull, pleads: not again, because she can’t. When her transformation into Ms. 45 is complete, Delia subverts this saxophone motif to signify Thana’s rebirth as a woman of vengeance. Her full red lips take centre stage as the music demands you know she’ll no longer be a victim. These dramatic, broad musical tones are complemented by gentler, stripped-down piano compositions.
Everyone who knows this movie knows ‘Dance Party’, and its Liquid Liquid/ESG-type disco-punk groove. On screen a band performs it at a fancy dress party as Thana – in a sexy nun’s habit – bides her time before her final, fatal act of vengeance. [SPOILER] For this climax Delia switches, on the first gun shot, to the haunting Gregorian sounds of ‘Voices’ as Thana shoots every man she finds in her cross hairs at the party – only to be halted when one of her fashionista colleagues (literally) stabs her in the back.
Delia recorded four other tracks for Ms. 45, but they only featured as snippets in the final film. He doesn’t consider these part of the score so they do not appear on the Death Waltz record. However, they are included as digital extras when you buy it, together with two elements tracks – 25 and 45 minutes long – thrown in for good measure.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews