Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 - Best films seen and general notes


Here is a list of the best films that I saw over 2011:

ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)
13ASSASSINS 
- more below

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAL RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)
– glorious oddness. This is how magic-realism should be.

DRIVE (2011)


-        Nasty and compelling serial killer/revenge flick that quite takes to task the vengeance motivation of most action narratives. Both gimmicky and deeply troubling.

DEEP END (1970)
-        Fantastic 60s coming-of-age story with a wonderful swimming pool backdrop. Made me think of how few films there are about the experience of getting your first job.
-        Visually stunning and sumptuous, stuffed full of detail and fancies and even a fantastic animated sequence. The sequence where pictures in a food book come to life is one of the most dazzling and sumptuous visuals I have seen in ages.

– stunning plot and made as if for adults! Tomas Alfredson is definitely a name I shall get excited about whenever it turns up.

– instantaneously one of my favourite domestic dramas crackling with unresolved tensions and the things that make families tender and shocking all at the same time.

– icy French revenge domestic drama. Cruel and wonderfully performed.


And honourable mentions...

THE BURNING (1981) – a consummate 80s slasher. The lingers in the memory as a far better film that it probably is, but then again: the raft scene.

BLACK DEATH (2010) – an unsual horror which end up being a pitch-black character and social study.

MONSTERS (2010) – don’t let the title misguide your expectations. As a low-budget invented-from-nothing exercise, and as a portrayal of how people might live at the edges of a world taken over by a science-fiction premise, this was quietly stunning and original. Also perhaps the best romance I've seen in a film for a long, long time.

GORGO (1951) – the final act with Gorgo stomping all over London is fantastic and the match for any albeit more realistic contemporary effects sequences.
Yes, I know what I just said about the effects, but the destruction caused by Gorgo is very, very impressive, I assure. It's just that his model head isn't quite as great.

INTERPLANETARY (2008) – winning and funny low-budget sci-fi filler in the style of “Dark Star”

THE KILL LIST (2011) – oh, it definitely gets under your skin. Stay with it. Probably an instant classic.

SALVAGE  (2009)
– because I like films that are about realistic people dealing realistically with impossible horror situations.
THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM THE SEA (1976) – which is just very odd in and particularly English way. Probably misguided as a Mishima adaptation, but something about this kind of ‘60s British cinema remains quite uncanny and bizarre. They just don't make beguiling bafflements like this anymore.


The two films that I saw at the cinema that truly surprised me and blew me away this year were “Attack the Block” and “13 Assassins”.

Oh yes, I know that “TREE OF LIFE” (2011) is meant to be THE one, but it was broadcasting its own greatness so loudly that I just nodded and went on to others that genuinely surprised. I did not feel that the entirety of cinema had been reinvented just because Terence Malick had created a gorgeous stream-of-consciousness cinematic family album with some science-fiction pages thrown in for good measure. I thought the birth of the universe sequence was ravishing. I thought the family drama that takes up the centre of film was far more linear than I was given to expect, that it was pretty and as stirring as a fine piece of prose. I felt, as I was always bound to, that the religious symbolism was daft and stunted. Like all great art that gestures wildly at that very greatness, threatening narcissism, it seemed to think religious iconography was incisive and enlightening instead of obvious and narratively trite. This was not really an investigation into the faith of its characters for it was far too obtuse and, shall we say, airy-fairy for that. It is exactly the kind of film that critics can love because it allows them to wallow in the sound of their own voice (yes, yes, me too). It’s characters, aside from its Brad Pitt dad and the Malickesque son, were woefully two dimensional. People seem to go on about the mother’s “grace” as if that is all she needed: gestures and reductive symbolism over genuine characterisation. The third act also had the sound of collapsing in upon itself and leaving the audience behind as it turned deeper into naval-picking. On the other hand, as a cinematic evocation of memory in action, “Tree of Life” was a wonderful indulgence. 

I was equally impressed with Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009), which I was fortunate enough to see in the same week as Malick’s film and which I felt to be the evil twin of “Tree of Life”. That is, it was a film that relied upon a slender narrative to explore, with highly stylised and stunning visual conceit, its mostly abstract characters. Both films were extremely dreamy, indulgent, pleasurably overlong and frequently breathtaking. “Enter the Void” also offered a knock-out opening credits and first act. “How did they do that?” frequently came to mind.

Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” (2011) also offered a flip side to “Tree of Life”, as well as a stunning opening sequence that matched Malick for beauty and stylisation. Trier is a deeply compelling and divisive director and can really excel and transcend as few others can. His “Europa” remains one of my favourite and one of the most visually daring films I have ever seen. Around the time of “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark” – the latter which I really like, not least for Bjork’s overall contribution – he decided to use female emotional and mental instability to convey his own depression and, yes, melancholia. I am adverse to the somewhat misogynist conflation of female emotional and mental instability and especially that they are also transcendent in some manner. Von Trier is ordinarily saved by some excellent performances, and “Melancholia” hosts a number of great character turns, no matter how silly some of it may be. Its sense of narrative timing is timing – try to put the melancholic Kirsten Dunst’s disintegration on her wedding day on some kind of clock and see whether it seems possible – and if you do not take to the film, you can shove a planet through its weaknesses. But its weaknesses feel more like punk, just as Malick’s feel like classical. However, the cosmic symbolism and frequent beauty and the sheer audaciousness of the ending (not to mention ambiguity: futility or final understanding) makes this a fascinating watch.

Again, “Black Swan” (2010) was problematic for me for seemingly presenting psychological ill health with transcendence. Of course, it was a slummy giallo horror in a tutu and since people tend to prefer their horror in fancy garb and their female performances in meltdown, not to mention some obvious symbolism, it generally went down well and crossed over into the mainstream. I shall probably enjoy more it a second time around when its pretentions and craziness can be laughed at and enjoyed just like any other b-film.

Similarly, I always want to enjoy Pedro Almodovar films more than I evidently do. Something about the way he makes rape and murder as casual as his excellent female leads put on another dress or make lunch feels too divorced from reality to work for me. A kind of camp regard for all things taboo, but not quite with the same revelatory or satirical rewards as in the work of John Waters. Nevertheless, “The Skin I Live In” (2011) was a far more successful body-horror and ‘mad doctor/scientist’ film that Tom Six’s flat joke “The Human Centipede”. “The Skin I Live In” was a kind of camp Cronenberg-lite, but that is not a bad thing. The consequences of mental and emotional suffering were all over Almodovar’s tale of gender and trauma. It still did not possess the same stunning narrative pyrotechnics and rigorous plotting as “Bad Education”, but it was a fine b-movie horror that, despite its crass elements, was likely to provoke at least cursory thoughts about sexuality and how it defines us.

Tyrannosaur” (2011) was quite the horror film in its British miserablism. Although well acted and filmed, it seemed to wallow without insight. It did possess a stunning performance by Olivia Colman, though.

I suppose “Hugo” (2011) appeared on a number of end of year top 10s because, well, film fans seem to enjoy films that trumpet how great film it. Or magical. I don’t really trust that Disneyesque or Speilbergian co-opting of that term “magical” because its feels like propaganda and earnt by cheap sentimentalism. It nearly capsized “Super 8” and nearly smothered “Hugo”, but not quite in either case. “Hugo” is too long: once it stops blaring about itself with big budget production and smothering the audience with visual pyrotechnics that serve no use to the small story at the centre, once it stops this and gives us a truly beautiful montage of George Georges Méliès going about the business of making and directing his silent films, the film has already past the point of being riveting and is very much a lot of pulling bunnies out of hats because the story has become inert. Nice, but that’s it. Also perverse: paying homage to the silent film era using crass and distracting 3-D.

Super 8” (2011) was also a bit too in love with its own movie-ness. Fun, well made and mostly brought down to earth by its engaging young cast rather than the script. Also, a missed opportunity, surely: a CGI effects bonanza when actually the best moments of the film are when the kids are making their own zombie film on Super 8. The end credits Super 8 movie kinds puts all the giant monster and sentimentality to shame.

Troll Hunter” (2010) was probably the best monster flick of the year. It also had the best scenery.

However, for amusement and nasty fun, Dick Maas's "Saint" (2010) had a lot going for it, not least of which was one of my favourite spectacles of the year: a demonic Santa Claus riding across the rooftops of Amsterdam on a horse.

Drive” (2011) equally was less than the eye saw, but nevertheless a great piece of hokum and the kind of film that seems to have slipped from view.

Thor” (2011) and “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011: clumsy, desperate title) were entertaining and diverting but disappeared into thin air upon reflection. The cinematic equivalent of a bag of crisps, I guess.

The Thing” (2011) was good fun and did well to pretend it was more than just a cash-in. Mostly it did this by not having totally risible dialogue and characters who actually seemed to be thinking. And no, the CGI effects did not transcend those of the Carpenter film.

Insidious” (2011) was appalling, despite a first half containing an excellent sequence of scares and great creep-outs.

Much, much better was “The Awakening” (2011) with its haunted school backdrop, elegant performances and direction, even if it ended up biting off more than it could chew.

Even better was Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” (2011), because its two central characters were some of the best ever put in a potential haunted building and for its patient development of eeriness and, yes, sadness and ambiguity.

So, for me it was “13 Assassins” and “Attack the Block” that truly rocked my world.

13Assassins” (2010) reminded me of why Takashi Miike is one of my favourite directors.

Attack the Block” came months before the London 2011 riots and it seemed to me to be the only British film that was tapped into the current social discontent and pending violent outbursts. Where was the other realist films truly and imaginatively conveying the alienation and barely repressed malcontent and, yes, conversational fun of kids on council estates (ghettos?). Beneath a daft alien invasion monster film (great, scary aliens!) Joe Cornish’s film turned a council estate into a visually arresting box of traps and spoke up on behalf of the generation of youths disparaged and hated by tabloid mentalities as well as holding them to account for their own wrong-doing. The more our protagonist Moses gains a conscience, the greater the number of aliens to battle. You didn’t have to think the film had any deeper level because it was also funny, nicely constructed and frequently genuinely gorgeous to look at.  As a kind of kitchen-sink-drama-meets-Joe Dante experiment, “Attack the Block” reminded me of just how powerful genre symbolism and playfulness can be. I am aware that there are many that think it's just a silly monster movie. However, my love for this film is quite boundless.  

Sunday, 16 October 2011

DRIVE

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Nicolas Winding Refn
2011, USA




The turning point of Refn’s appropriation of Walter Hill and Michael Mann aesthetics, “Drive”, is surely the one scene that I initially felt to be the most problematic. The elevator scene seemed to me to encapsulate Andrew Tracey’s [Reverseshot] main objection to “Drive”: namely, it’s silliness. It is indeed the same silliness I felt afflicts some of the work of Michael Mann, whose male angst and posturing I find so unintentionally amusing (less damaging in “Manhunter”, but fatally marring “Heat”, for example). This glossy emotional gesticulating feels very much like the moody soft-pop-rock that Mann so favours on his soundtracks: appealing, easy, but ultimately shallow. Refn, too, uses an electronic soundtrack, a wonderful, retro-feeling Chris Martinez score. There’s also a silly but endearing song about heroes. However, one should not be misled that Refn is coopting Mann’s taste: throughout his career, Refn has utilised excellent, distinctive soundtracks and song choices (less self-satisfied than Tarantino; less soppy than Mann).

That pinnacle moment, the elevator scene, is where the soundtrack takes over and the movements of the characters fall into slow-motion to emphasise its poignancy. The driver and his love interest have just got into an elevator with a man who the driver knows to be a hoodlum sent to kill them. Now, at first the silliness seems to be in the way that the driver stops to steal a deep, long kiss in slow-motion rather than just deal with the hoodlum whilst he has the element of surprise. It is such a moment that critics in love with gestures rather than realism or character pragmatism really take to and buy into the sign-posted poignancy. If you are to read “Drive” for its gestures, then will probably be the great romantic moment, and certainly this is how Matt Bochenski [*littlewhitelies] reads it, without ambiguity or irony. He says, “Driver kisses her before turning on the other man. It’s a moment of exquisite and contradictory emotions – love, atonement, vengeance and rage – coalescing and combusting with startling ferocity.” Similarly, James Hansen [*Out 1 Film Journal] reads the driver as heroic. But this now brings to the controversy of “Drive”.

There is the amusing tale of the woman trying to sue the film distributor for leading her to believe she was going to see another “The Fast and The Furious” film. Well, entertaining as that is, one can see a certain point: when I first saw the trailer for “Drive”, I was as disinterested as I ordinarily am with any trailer going through its tedious litany of clichés; but then I saw it was directed by Refn, and I was interested, certain that it was being misrepresented, mispackaged. Which it was. Because the car chases are probably not what you are going to remember about “Drive”. One might even wish there had been more footage of his stunt driver work, and his heist work. But no: what likely to remember is the violence, because when “Drive” lets loose, it is extremely crunchy and violent. I see this again as further evidence of how the influence of ‘extreme cinema’ of the preceding decade has trickled upwards into more mainstream titles. Many of its detractors have turned aggressively against “Drive” in response to the shocking violence.

But it seems to me that the driver is not heroic, although he is an anti-hero. He is not simply romantically detached or mostly alienated from the world around him, in the old school manner of stoic, mostly silent troubled men of action who, nevertheless, live by a code. He is - as apparently Ryan Gosling also feels - psychotic. We know this as soon as he responds relentlessly, consummately during the motel attack. He has preternatural abilities with violence when under assault. This then is why he is detached and sits at home playing with car parts, but then he gets somewhat gets involved with the girl next door and her son. He seems to be eying romance and the domestic with longing, but he knows what he is. He is, after all, a getaway driver for unpleasant people. He knows: and so when he kisses her in the elevator, even though this seems a ridiculous thing to do when under threat in close confines, he does so because he knows that when he does indeed attack the hoodlum, any chance he has with her will be gone because there shall be no disguising that truth about him (and perhaps if she does accept what he is, perhaps she isn’t his idyll after all). And indeed, the head-stomping is horrifying, and it is not abbreviated; it is excessive in a way that goes beyond self-preservation. It is psychotic. And she stands there and watches and she sees what he is and what he is capable of. And for this reason, I came to change my mind and believe that the elevator scene was the pinnacle of the film, and that it did indeed work after all. We may revel in the driver’s ability to best the bad guys with violence that matches if not supersedes theirs, in the manner that we revel in power and revenge fantasies, but it is also psychotic and surely does not meet the criteria of heroism. It is, like much of Refn’s oeuvre, another portrait of an incredibly, horrifying violent man trying to hold things together. We see evidence of this from his first feature “Pusher” right through “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”. And he is very good at painting these portraits, however similar thematically, through varying shades of different genres. Here, the stripped down romantically inclines thriller gives his violent man tale a pretty and soft veneer with a shattering centre. Some may see the driver as Steve McQueen cool, but that surely is not the truth of it. (And all this and the accomplished retro-feel, one can only imagine what Refn might have done, or could still do with Brett Easton Ellis' "American Psycho".)


Refn sees “Drive” in terms of a fairy-tale, which implies that those metaphysical and symbolic gestures are actually treated in earnest. Refn directs both stylishly and bluntly so that the effect is disorienting, as if the sleek gloss of ’Eighties Hollywood never went out of fashion, but interrupted by the shock of recent extreme cinema. It is like Scorsese, Mann, Walter Hill, Gasper Noe, Takashi Miike are all being shaken in a cocktail glass of blood and grue. The characters are indeed mostly ciphers and that is mostly the point. Carey Mulligan, for example, is just a pretty porcelain face and little else, and perhaps her vapidity – unconvincing as she is as a single mother – is what attracts her to the driver. (And she, too, is a mostly wordess character flirting with violence, as her attraction for the driver and her just-out-of-jail husband hints; what does she see in them?). And “Drive” may well also feature “Ron Perlman, giving perhaps his first bad performance” [*A. Tracey] But its silliness is more to do with the fact that Refn’s film has everything to do with cinematic reality, gently nodding at archetypes so hard in order to make them totems and symbolic, not only clichés. It’s more in tune with the real world than Tarantino or your average Hollywood actioner, but only by a matter of degrees. It is the style, the mood, Ryan Gosling, the everso-slightly dreamy momentum and indulgences that make “Drive” transcend its pretensions and clichés. It is like a New Wave synthesiser being smashed up with a punk guitar. It’s a bloody marshmellow, a beguiling bone-based cake that allows a fan to give in to cinematic artifice and the pleasures of a typical genre piece told with just a touch of dazzle and insight. In that way, “Drive” is probably both less and more than it seems and as engrossing and dazzling piece of artifice as you are likely to see in the post-noir era.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK

Troy Nixhey, 2010 (USA-Australia-Mexico)




Anyone troubled by thick shadows and impregnable darkness need not really be worried by “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. Troy Nixey’s adaptation of favoured 70’s TV movie horror of the same name offers up Movie Darkness, which means that we barely ever get real, pitch darkness. The darkness that is offered is often inconsistent; for example, the basement – surely meant to make the title really something to worry about – is brightly lit and the creatures are mostly glaringly visible in dull light; which also negates the whole they can’t stand the light clause. After a prologue featuring a crowd-pleasing teeth assault (the audience I saw this with were audibly delighted and troubled) the film skips through it’s clichés cheerfully enough without doing anything new or damaging: whispery voices; a bathroom assault; bad dialogue; something under the dining table at daddy’s big business meal; characterisation that never goes up a gear; no one believes the troubled child, and so on.

The girl – Sally (Bailee Maddison) – is the troubled and precocious mini-Goth soul of divorced parents; then mum sends her to stay with dad, multiplying her alienation and sense of rejection, which manifests in moroseness and tearful outbursts. Courtesy of the big name associated with this production – Guillermo el Toro had a hand in the screenplay and production – Dad (Guy Pearce) lives in a huge, gothic old house that he is restoring with his new interior designer girlfriend (Katie Holmes). We do not really get a grand tour of this remarkable building as the action is mostly confined to a handful of rooms, so our sense of its size is mostly limited to its impressive grounds and exterior shots. Nevertheless, within five minutes, the girl is finding the basement that no one else has noticed and hearing voices saying they want to play with her and that her parents do not love her. In truth, Sally seems a bit too smart and aware to fall for this ruse, but in no time she is heading into the cellar all alone and so on. The homunculi – who like to eat children’s teeth especially (a better use of the Tooth Fairy myth than “Darkness Falls” [2003]) – act increasingly aggressively, and for a moment they are mischievous and give the film its one truly gleefully macabre moment: they manipulate a toy teddy bear to make the girl think it is alive. But dad is too preoccupied with reviving his career to pay full attention to her monster tales. Meanwhile, potential step-mom is increasingly concerned at her boyfriend’s blinkered treatment of his daughter and starts to befriend Sally. A little feminist bonding gives the staid characterisation some lift and colour. Step-mom starts to investigate Sally’s story and luckily, inevitably, inexcusably, there is a Librarian of Exposition to put into place that this may all be the fault of ancient fairies, etc.


In the end, impressive set design only goes so far as compensation for a really tired narrative, and a constantly gliding and faux-showy camera cannot disguise that tiredness. Worst of all, the film is sloppy with details: does that pretty bedside map casting eerie horses on the wall play music all the time or just sometimes? There’s a monster arm lying on the floor… does no one notice? Or, as Unkle Lancifer says: “the film’s largest break from known reality involves not fairy monsters but a magical Polaroid camera that never runs out of film.” (*kindertrauma) Del Toro’s customary fairy tale trimmings are nice without really bringing more than nice décor and some colourful backstory, the kind that his Hellboy deals with before breakfast. As Lancifer wisely notes, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” would work better as a PG horror, and the teeth chiselling that starts it off seems more tacked on in order to bump up its superficial horror ratings credibility. Ultimately, the camera can’t stop gliding, there is little stillness or true darkness to truly unsettle and the most troubling and perhaps daring result of the film is that the stepmother is undeservedly sacrificed to sate these manifestations of the child’s latent fury and resentment at her situation. Shame the film is too shallow to make the most of this genuinely chilling subtext.


But it is true that the homunculi are spooky and steal the show.


Friday, 26 August 2011

KM 31: Kilómetro 31




KM 31: Kilómetro 31




Rigoberto Castañeda, 2006, Mexico-Spain




This starts off decently enough, helped by a drained colour palate where everything is moody greys and blues and helped by a lot of black. Woman driving home through a deserted country road appears to hit a child, but the child isn’t dead… and then she is. Perhaps the Twin Sisters With Psychic Bond and Dark Past ought to be a clue that we might be in trouble, viewer, but it is only really when our troubled protagonist and her man run into The Old Lady of Exposition that it becomes clear that “KM 13” is a total mess of plot, has lost its sense of foreboding for increasingly cheaper shocks and effects.



Oh, and the old lady is a ghost, which insults so much and is so obvious that any viewer is likely to go from mild curiosity to openly snorting at the unravelling narrative and suspense, such as they were. Indicative of the overall sloppiness is how one moment they are running out to the haunted road, and the next they have to take cars and taxis. And the lighting becomes similarly arbitrary: the woodland is dark one moment and then impossibly lit by Kleig lights the next. And what is the point of having a sewer showdown if it’s lit to banish any hint of shadow? The showdown is moreorless the protagonist standing in the sewers staring at desperate special effects, the kind of ghostly visions that were the highlight of ropey old “Ghost Story” and a hundred derivatives, but are so rote and badly presented here that there is not even any room to enjoy cliché or take it as so-bad-it’s-good amusement.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

BROTHERHOOD



BROTHERHOOD

Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo

Je Gyu- Kang, 2004, South Korea


We start by literally digging up the history of the Korean war: an excavation of a battlefield is underway. Everything is as straightforward as can be; we know where we stand and the conventions are all in place (at the very lest, Spielberg’s war epics shall be good indications of what’s to come). Triggered by the excavation and the search for a battlefield survivor, a flashback returns us to 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean war. Grand period street scene recreations abound, against which our two protagonists, the brothers, dash around as the score flourishes. All very Segio Leone, very Bertolucci, etc.

“Brotherhood” is a struggle between the overwhelming achievement of its battle scenes and the overwhelming forces of its melodrama. The latter provides an almost perfunctory framework within which the former can operate. The melodrama of the tale of two brothers coerced into the Korean war runs along emotional and narratively contrived and predictable lines: it starts out all “Once Upon A Time in Korea” with the immense street scenes epic in detail and nostalgic in tone, for we join them on The Perfect Day Before Their Lives Changed Forever. We know that these opening scenes will come back as flashbacks later on in more fraught times. One brother – Jin-saeok Lee (Bin Won) - is an academic, and the other – Jin-tae Lee (Dong-gun Jang) - is a ‘rough’ streetwise shoe-seller. Later, there shall be a lot of sentiment over both symbolic pens and shoes. So rich is their environment and set design that the obviousness of what the narrative is doing and what is being set up is secondary. The broad strokes may make Je-Gyu’s film undemanding, but the details frequently keep it compelling: the maggots on casualty wounds; the starvation; the way the young men are duped into being drafted into the army; the confusion and in-fighting about who, exactly, is the enemy. Even better is the way Je-Gyu frequently shows how the epic qualities of war, with which we are all acquainted from cinema, is always reduced to hand-to-hand combat: the melees remind us that this is not only about a bunch of extras and dummies flying around in the distance to frightening and thrilling explosions, but also the messy, chaotic, free-for-all man-to-man combat that leaves life a second-to-second business. So visceral and intimate are these masses of fist-fights of the first battle scene – so brilliantly achieved – that by the end of the first hour it feels as if “Brotherhood” is already done, having fulfilled its quota.

But there is a further hour and a half to go. The rough brother is corrupted by war, by his own heroism, even as his pen-pushing sibling walks through unscathed much like an untouched virgin in a brothel. Je-Gyu appears to be trying for something mythical, totemic and/or archetypal in this tale of brotherly love driven apart by war, but all this seems to mean is that the melodrama increases without ever straining convention or anything nuanced. We also get many more battle scenes, and these often take the breath away. In their insistence and persistence that epic battles are always ultimately about a mass of men pounding and stabbing away at one other in trenches - thrashing around on top of each other in total desperate and murderous mayhem with very little rhyme or reason other than to stay alive - the battle scenes are as consummate condemnation of war as any you are likely to see. Jin-tae is a virtual superman in his heroism, seeming impervious to hails of bullet at times, and yet Je-Gyu never wallows in the dubious victories of war. The soldiers and streets may celebrate, but after the first victory party, these celebrations seem to become hollow and tired and by rote. Their propagandist nature rises to the surface with repetition. But “Brotherhood” has its own agenda of sentiment and by the final battle this has drowned those smarter details and, like so many war films, reduces the huge horror to a [sibling] love story, to the detriment of insight.

“Brotherhood” probably isn’t much of a digging up of Korea’s history of conflict - I certainly learnt nothing specific about its causes and complexities, although mass confusion at gound-level seems a reasonable estimate of life during wartime - and there is certainly merit in dragging it to the heel of human tragedy, to the individuals and families torn apart. But arguably a clear and less fevered eye is more instructive and so “Brotherhood” feels classic only in the way that classics may have once relied too much upon sentiment and a grand scale to avoid politics and insights (for example: Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” provides a similar but cooler and more incisive comparison; “Brotherhood” is more like “Flags of Our Fathers” in its reliance upon nostalgia and over-cooked pathos). But there is a lot of terrible truth in those numerous battle scenes and it is those that will leave the viewer breathless, shaken and hugely impressed. The actual tale of brotherhood evaporates in a explosion of melodramatic cliché.

13 ASSASSINS

13 ASSASSINS - Jûsan-nin no shikaku

Takashi Miike, Japan-UK, 2010



I know that for a Western audience it is ordinarily “Audition” or “Ichi the Killer” that acts as their introduction to Takashi Miike, but for me it was “Visitor Q”. It was “Visitor Q” that truly told me that Miike was a master of not only shock cinema, but cinema and genre overall. What an induction. The most incredible social satire, a real funny and unapologetic shocker. Miike famously has an incredible output. 50 films to date and counting or something. He has tried everything. And he can do anything. Working your way through his back catalogue will take you from the sublime, the manic, the carefully crafted to the more workmanlike. But even at his most prosaic – “One Missed Call” and “Bodyguard Kiba” – there is always evidence of Miike’s barely tethered inventiveness, always at least one remarkable moment. If I say he is a master of genre, then you may pick any genre that you favour and he has set a precedent in it. He understands genre. His is an incredibly gonzo imagination but he also possesses great discipline and exceptional artistry.
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Take for example Miike’s adaptation of Eiichi Kudo’s “The Thirteen Assassins”, the 1963 shogun film. Miike’s “13 Assassins” starts with a episode of seppuku which is no less gruelling for the act itself taking place offscreen: Miike trusts that all we need to see is the actor’s tortured face; and yes it is enough. But this is also not to say that Miike will hold back from shock and explicitness. Soon, we gaze upon a traumatised woman whose limbs have been cut off by the insane Shogun lord. Next, we shall see this lord using a family as target practice. Later, the blood will flow. And how. There is a steady and pensive nature to the first half of “13 Warriors”, in which the chilling atrocities carried out by the Shogun lord - Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) - have time to ferment. This is a villain of incredible vintage. His cruelty is boundless and moored to his philosophy that to be a Shogun is to be a God, that cruelty is the natural right and extension of the absolute power he possesses. It is a power buffered by the way of the samurai who do his bidding, who must die for him and never question why. “13 Assassins” has much to say about the atrocities allowed by rampant feudalism and blind obedience. The themes of the film are timeless just as the film feels timeless: it already feels like a classic.
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The inspirations and references are easy to conjure – Kurosawa, etc – but, again, Miike’s mastery of genre is unsurpassed and all his own. We have 13 assassins even before the wealth of side characters that populate all the political intrigue; but Miike knows that we know the nature of this film, that we know our Kurosawa and Leone and Ford and all those other classics. He knows that he can sketch the assassins with hints of stock types and allow fine actors to bring them to life and that shall be enough for the audience to keep track. There is no need for flashbacks and great back-stories, although we get a little of that also. The beginning is the slow burn: our villain is vile, our assassins assembled, our blood chilled and the atmosphere thick with pending confrontation. Miike allows the superficially slow pace (a repeat viewing will reveal that, in actually, it is not so slow and that narrative is delivered in a number of swift set-pieces with often underplayed and straightforward drama) and the dour, low naturalistic lighting to cast a doom-laden, almost uncanny atmosphere, and expectation for the confrontation builds on and on.
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The way of the samurai is dying away and, most of all, these samurai want a last chance to use their skills and die by the way of the sword, as they wish. There is a lot about honour and choice in “13 Assassins” too. Even for the youngest member who merely wants to get the chance to try out his skills and die like his heroes. There are a handful of stand-offs to whet the appetite and some gorgeous photography to keep us gripped as expectation mounts further.

 
And then … and then Miike offers us something sublime. A battle that takes half of the film. A battle in which he unleashes all the repressed violence that has been building up. A battle that relishes the old fashioned cinematic joy of a handful of heroic types up against impossible odds (and it feels joyously far from the macho-heroics of American action cinema). A battle that is built not from CGI (although probably that too), but collapsing sets, giant gates, hundreds of extras, lashings of blood and, exhilaratingly, burning and rampaging bulls. It is one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed. If it sometimes falls into the modern trap of action conveyed by a shaking camera and too many cuts, threatening incomprehensibility at times, it also follows the battle over rooftops and through streets, alleys and buildings and with the thirteen assassins without ever truly losing us. It is quite remarkable and thrilling. Also remarkable is that throughout this cinematic exhilaration, Miike never loses the sense of doom, of the themes already established, of existential musing on what it means to die for something - blindly or knowlingly - of choosing to challenge the wrong of the established order and hierarchy.
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I never thought I would see a new Miike film at the cinema (he makes so many and they generally bypass the London big screen), but I did and I was reminded why he is one of my favourite directors. I knew, when the battle scene began, that I was in the midst of watching a masterpiece. Having deliberately avoiding reading anything about it, the battle scene surprised and dazzled me. But all the time, I knew that the whole of the film was so much more. An instant classic. It straddles everything that has been celebrated about classic cinema with all the artistry and tricks of modern cinema, much like “There Will Be Blood” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward John Ford”. The quiet of the aftermath and the slightly sly humour and final sentiment of the closing exchange between survivors continues to elevate the film to the very end. The bloodletting and the samurai code is finally dismissed and mocked even as the honour and sacrifice of our eponymous heroes is respected and makes the viewer wonder what it is to die for duty. Or, as Nick Schager summarises, “Miike isn't interested in shades of gray, but rather in celebrating the dignity of forfeiting one's comfort and livelihood (if not life itself) for a worthy cause.”
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“13 Assassins” is delirious, mad, elegant, thoughtful, cathartic, dazzling in scope, funny, gritty and brutal. It feels both like art and pure cinema in that is luxuriates in spectacle, storytelling and man’s confrontations with himself and others, and his place in the universe and the natural world. Another Miike masterpiece.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Introducing my novel: "Blazer Fables"






Here, then, is my first completed novel, self-published and all that. "Blazer Fables". It's a boarding school story interested in locating those moments that define character during adolescence. The characters are mostly centred in a single dorm and it is their stories that are followed. Hope, despair, boredom, comic books, petty squabbles, grand friendships, great artistic ventures, continental trips, fighting, foolishness, English lessons and music all feature. .


Perhaps you might like to try it out?

The novel is based upon a real location, but it's all fiction. I painted the cover, took the back cover photograph and chose the font. When I was a kid, I loved to make, draw, write and design my own comics and books. Horror anthologies, puzzle books (wordsearches, etc), superhero comics, James Bond parodies and "Clash of the Titans" rip-offs. I tried them all. This then is just doing the same thing on a more costly scale. There are meant to be, in fact, two more volumes to "Blazer Fables"... but who knows if that shall ever happen?

Mostly, it is fun to have completed something like this and to have it printed and tangible, weighty in my hands. It has been ten years in the writing, due to starting it with feverish ambition, then sabotaged by dying computers and abandoned for over half a decade as I tried other things. But I came back to it last year, seduced by the prospect of publishing all by myself, and therefore finished it. Blessed be the internets for offering vanity publishing. If you are to write into a void, it's probably more satisfying to throw an actual physical entity into it.

Monday, 2 May 2011

INSIDIOUS

James Wan,
2010, US


“Insidious” Director James Wan is, of course, infamous for being behind the original “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity”. This is branded all over the promotion, naturally, and so let us look at his latest offering to see if there is more franchise-making potential in him.

Our troubled middle-class family, the Lamberts, can’t manage a piece of original or distinct dialogue between them. The parents go to bed and talk like teenagers just into the “serious” stage of dating rather than grown adults with three kids to their name. But this is the least of the parents’ problems. There’s a baby to provide baby-monitor frights and a second child who gets only to be scared of his older brother before disappearing from the scenario. The older brother, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is the real problem. Don't be fooled by the promotional posters that seem to cast him as a Devil Child. No: on one spooksome excursion into the attic, he bumps his head and soon afterwards falls into a coma. Around this time, events happen that seem to indicate the house is haunted. There is a baby monitor present, so you know how that goes (strange vocal sounds resembling Mike Patton improvising comes through the tinny speaker) and this is where “Insidious” provides its best stretch.

Although the film is not without atmosphere in the early stages, events clip along so quickly that I occasionally wasn’t aware the scene had changed or that, suddenly, they were unpacking, not still packing up to move… the family had already done so. Indeed, the speed and substance is little more than that of the short horror tales in, say, comics like “House of Mystery”, and as ultimately impatient and obvious as the worst of “Goosebumps”. What “Insidious” does have is a handful of nicely staged early scares and a bunch of funhouse ride jumps at the end. This appears to be what everyone is raving about. In fact, the final act is so stuffed full of desperate attempts to make the audience jump that it strangles the film whilst it is still flailing about. But let’s step back a bit because, before that, with the baby monitor scare, the film manages to truly tap into the scary.


Forgoing most of the flavourless dialogue and characters for a while, Wan concentrates on the frights, and some of them are great. The figure by the cot; the figure pacing up and down outside the window and, perhaps best of all, the dark shadow inside the house dancing around to an old tune as Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) looks in from a sunny exterior. At one point, the haunting not only has spectres in the house, but is also triggering the house alarms and opening front doors, tapping simultaneously into as many fears of home invasion as possible. Inevitably, Wan overdoes each set-up, forgoing the creeps for cheap jumps. There is a nice use of timing when the “Jump Blare” from the soundtrack happens a moment after the figure at the cot, but otherwise the escalations and cues are mostly obvious. Although there is a great chill when the figure pacing outside the window is suddenly pacing inside, it’s followed by the cheap jump of the figure making a grab for our token mother. Similarly, the dancing shadow in the house during the daytime gives way to a less poetic and eerie chase-the-ghost through the rooms. The creepy vision of the shadowy, inhuman arm standing by the bed of the comatose boy gives way to it tritely pointing at the kid. Nevertheless, this is the most successful sequence of scares, during which we discover that it is not the house that is haunted, but Dalton himself.


Discovering their first move has landed them in the world of “Poltergeist” and Asian horror ghost scares, the Lamberts simply get up and move. This is refreshing: how many times have we wondered why families stay in places that are terrorising them? Because it is Dalton that is haunted, the film is free to let them do what we all would think we would do: get out. Of course, the Lamberts actually have the finances, apparently, to do such a thing. One minute they are there, and the next they have moved with the snap of the fingers. Not bad for a teacher and, seemingly, a composer of songs for a living. Haunted houses ought to be tied in to all kinds of financial concerns and woes, but this is rarely exploited to the best in cinematic hauntings. In the new house, Renai Lambert continues to experience terrifying supernatural shocks. And then the film takes a total nosedive with the arrival of the ghost hunters.


First, the two slightly bickering nerds turn up for comic relief. Then, their boss the old lady medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) turns up and her terrible mumbo-jumbo and exposition about astral projection, malevolent entities and “The Further” throws the film way out from the sequence of enjoyable and genuine chills. Her horribly trite assumptions and supernatural medium abilities are barely challenged: Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) quite sensible throws her out at first but then, seeing some of his kid’s drawings on the wall, which he surely would have seen any number of times before, he suddenly realises that he is all wrong and Elise the medium is all right.


The film at this point has given over to its inane and laughable dialogue and explanations and imagines its haunts as spooks from a rock videos extras department: grinning, pasty-faced, haggard, whistling, wearing wedding dresses, you know the drill. Worst, “Insidious” falls ultimately into relying on devil imagery and by that time there is no sense that Wan and writer Leigh Whannel have any investment in their story or family at all: it’s just a tired and worn funhouse ride. I have overheard comparisons with “Drag Me To Hell”, but “Drag Me To Hell” works on a number of different levels, it is invested in its characters and in what horror means and can represent. Also, there is a gonzo sensibility to Raimi’s funhouse style that sets the precedent that very few seem able to follow without relying upon the same old, tired jump scares and wafer-thin characterisation. Wan even throws in a gas-mask contraption for the séance sequence because, well, gas-masks are scary, right? And do watch out for the little Jigsaw (from “saw”) doodle on the blackboard.


Towards the end, during the screening I attended (where people jumped like crazy at some places and openly laughed at ‘The Further’ in others), I leaned to my friend and joked that I predicted an “Astral smackdown” between astral projections. I was right. The film relies upon that American-Hollywood belief that simply shouting at the enemy/ghosts and being self-assertive can solve everything, and if you can have a punch-up, that's affirmative too. Where modern filmmakers seem to rely so much on editing learnt from advertising and music videos, where they seem to suffer from a crippling anxiety that the audience has no attention span, horror films with genuine pacing and build-up are being asphyxiated in the mainstream. Especially the modern mainstream ghost film, which relies so very much upon atmospherics and dread. So worried about not deviating from the standard Christian approach to American horror are such films that they throw in redundant devil imagery because, ~ as with “Insidious” ~ with no real characters, dialogue or atmosphere to fall back on, they have nowhere else to go. There is a last-minute attempt at a twist of sorts, but even that ends up a little as a dead end: what does it mean? What is the logical continuation of the final revelation? A family massacre? A difficult divorce?


Wan’s film insults on so many levels. You will take away a handful of good scares and a couple of jumps, but it is mostly derivative and cliché and ultimately condescending and insulting to its audience in those ways. This is horror for those that don’t necessarily like horror and think that all that horror is is “being scary” and jumping out of your seat. A ghost story as MTV video. And I would not count out a sequel.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

BOOK OF BUZZ: "Bug Room"

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce a band that I am in...




BUG ROOM



Tenderness. Tenderness is frozen. The Wilderness is calling. Emptiness is the four walls I’ve been given. A jar of bugs. A slow death on a sill.



Nothing to prove.


Nothing to hide.


You wouldn’t want me.


You wouldn’t have me anyway.


Like a prom king that grew up wrong and took it out on his bride.



Sympathy and forgiveness are for taking. A last note: badly spelt; asking. A lack of manners: challenge all-comers! A sleeplessness full of blood-dogs and dumbness.


Tenderness… The Wilderness… Emptiness… a jar of bugs… A slow death on a sill…


Nothing to prove.


Nothing to hide.


You wouldn’t want me.


You wouldn’t have me anyway.


Like a prom king that grew up wrong and took it out on his bride.


____________________________

“Bug Room” written by Book of Buzz

The Man With The 2Quid Moustache: buggy bass, guitar & keyboards. - Buck Theorem: words&vocals - Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez Rodriguez: drumkit bug

&


recorded by Dan Marshall

Mixed by Kramer (!)

Book of Buzz on facebook .

"The Electric Stuff of Love" by the man with the 2quid moustache

Monday, 11 April 2011

"Sucker Punch"


Zack Snyder, 2011, USA

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“Sucker Punch” is a mess. Incredibly so. If nothing else, Snyder has given a clue as to what the fantasies might look like of an adolescent boy getting his first awkward crush over a female character from a games console adventure. On the other hand, the mash-up anything-goes-high-fantasy-over-plotted-and-under-developed and adventures-within-adventures set-up also resembles many comic strips from “Heavy Metal” magazine and many Manga titles. It’s just... a mess.

By the miracle of CGI and other modern special effects, Snyder can do anything, but that only means he has no control. More for the mix: steampunk, “American McGee’s Alice”, Ray Harryhausen giant monsters, post-“X-men” moody and soapy superhero comics, bad fem-rock videos. When tied to a solid and fascinating story such as “Watchmen”, Snyder’s boundless/undisciplined imagination sometimes worked wonders in bringing that seminal graphic novel to life. When limited to a realistic world and forced to abide by certain horror conventions, Snyder produced a number of outstanding scenes in his remake of “Dawn of the Dead” (the opening remains one of the best introductory sequences ever). “300” showed just how ridiculous and terrible Snyder can be when the script does not focus him: at his worst, he comes across as oblivious to the actual meaning and intent of the material at hand. But “300” is, if nothing else, one big joke of absurdism and there is a tongue in a cheek somewhere, surely. When, in “Watchmen”, he used “Hallelujah” for a sex scene, it was hilariously audacious. “Sucker Punch” has none of this knowingness. It has no control at all.

Here is a director that has used music and genre mash-ups to considerable effect previously, and yet here hits all the wrong notes. In “Dawn of the Dead” he bonded Johnny Cash with the zombie genre, and in “Watchmen”, the superhero genre with Nina Simone, all to wonderful effect. With “Sucker Punch” there is some Tarantino effect where you feel that he has written down the play-list for the soundtrack before getting the film together. He doesn’t go as far as to ‘sample/steal’ from other film soundtracks, but what we do have is a relentless catalogue of so-so rock cover-versions. The songs are often so obvious and puerile in their association to the plot that you wonder if there will be a song about walking up stairs when someone walks up stairs. “Army of Me” when Baby Doll first shows her combat skills; “Where is My Mind?” to signify lobotomised and fantasy-insanity; “Search and Destroy” for… you get the idea. We know we are in trouble from the outset: before we have even settled, we have an extended pre-credits music-video for a cover version of “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)”, which is apparently the go-to song for girls being abused by their step-daddies once their mother dies. In trying to stop leery step-dad from abusing her sister, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) accidentally shoots her sister (although the scene is muddled and so this was not particularly clear to me at first, or to the people I went to see the film with). It is somehow indicative of the bewildered and shallow psychology of “Sucker Punch” that it has no understanding of the ambiguities of the lyric of “Sweet Dreams”, that they imply a little give-and-take which, if applied to the situation of these “Sucker Punch” sisters, could imply they were as much to blame as the step-dad. Well, they do dress sweetly and move around in pretty slo-mo. Overall, “Sucker Punch” goes on to look like feature-length music video tie-in for a dodgy cover versions album. There is no interesting friction in the mash-ups of inappropriate songs married to various scenes. Song choices: 1 point (the originals are mostly great). Cover Versions: 1 (they probably aren't all bad when taken out of the film). Song use: minus 3 points.

And so Baby Doll is thrown into a sanatorium by her step-dad and left at the mercy of the corrupt orderlies. At the point of being lobotomised, reality flips and we are in a club/brothel full of hot girly-girls and frequented by putrid males. Baby Doll has retreated into an alternate reality where the club is run by a sub-Pacino scene-chewer called Blue (Oscar Isaac), and where she proves not only to be the best dancer ever, but also the one to encourage a handful of other captive girls to try to escape. As ever, this fantasy runs on the perpetual “chosen one” motif. However, there is another collapsing of reality, for when Baby Doll dances, she zones out and we are given self-contained action sequences in different scenarios/levels. These are the best moments of the film, for they hold the crop of beautiful images and offer up a selection of game-inspired but irresistible creatures: clockwork nazis, giant samurais with chain-guns; dragons; bi-planes; robot-battle-suits; silver attack robots – all familiar from sources such as “Lord of the Rings”, “Killzone”, “Dragonslayer” and so on and so on. For my money, the giant samurai fight is the best of the lot, the clockwork nazis the creepiest, the dragon the prettiest. But then I am a sucker for a good dragon. (The dragon sequence offers perhaps the most original and striking visual: when it bites off the tail of the fleeing airplane, we get to see it chomp down from inside the plane.) The fight editing is thrilling and unintelligible in equal measure, but at least in these sequences Snyder is not tied down to story and he offers some spectacular artificial imagery.

Rarely has a film gotten such a kick from watching girls getting kicked around and then kicking-ass. On the one side, this feels like more titillation for the guys, on the other the girls’ involuntary squeals and grunts of pain and panic seems to reveal how artificial macho-centric and unrealistic films are when they don’t show the men during battle doing the same (yes, I know: a real man doesn’t squeal in pain, etc.). The girls scream and grunt here, and then they wipe out the opposition. But “Sucker Punch” is so thoroughly divorced from reality and the action sequences so grounded in game-console language that no point is proven about gendered action fiction and only the titillation remains. We are meant perhaps to see this is a tale of oppressed and abused girls discovering feminine fight-back power, and Snyder has said he sees it as such, but they are dressed for the male gaze and the male gaze runs supreme here: in “300” this male gaze, fascinated with physique and muscles, flesh and action-poses, created infamously homoerotic vistas; in “Sucker Punch” it simply feels like pandering to a teen fanboy’s soft core dreams. When the girls are hurt and abused, tears streaming down faces and so on, it feels like more titillation: look how pretty the girls hurt. Emily Brown as Baby Doll, evidently cast for her big Manga-eyes and Bambi-in-headlights looks, is barely human at all, so porcelain is her skin, so eternally and simultaneously injured and vacuous are her looks. Not that the other girls fare any better, but Baby Doll is left troublingly not so much between Virgin/Whore but more Kewpie Doll/Whore, an empty vessel and lacuna upon which stuttering male fantasies can have it all. She is slave to a brothel; she can dance like a stripper (the fact that we do not see her dance feels analogous to the fact that we cannot see her in the bedroom with clients ~ this is pretty sordid stuff for a PG-13); she can fight back too and look hot doing so. Compare with Hit-Girl from “Kick Ass”: Snyders harem of girl-power folds into ridiculousness by comparison. Which girl audience would take Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Blondie, Rocket and Amber as their fantasy icons when you have Hit-Girl to hand? (And no, I don't consider The Spice Girls to have been a genuine historical source of "girl-power" either.)

And finally there shall be the old martyred heroine to top off the cheap dramatics and clichés. Well, not totally: the end credits, appallingly, give a last minute musical number (of “Love is the Drug”, no less). Confused on all frequencies and misfiring on several, “Sucker Punch” has only the visuals of the fantasy sequences to recommend it, and even then they shall remind you of gameplaying and other films. Come the third or fourth, even these sequences become tedious. “Sucker Punch” is only going to feed Snyder’s detractors endlessly and, after “Watchmen’s” successes (and time shall surely prove it a success in the main part), “Sucker Punch” is a terrible comedown. Snyder is a visualiser who apparently needs a strong script to rein him in, but right now his failings as a mature artist probably fits just right for Hollywood’s juvenilia. Who knows, since he has proven hit-and-miss and thoroughly erratic, his next film might be his best? But they probably shouldn’t let him write it.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Burning (...and sexual tensions)


THE BURNING


Tony Maylam, USA, 1981


 
For a certain generation, films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Evil Dead” and “The Burning” took on mythical status. There was I, at school, getting the low-down on how terrifying these films were from my far cooler pal, a guy who was tall for his age and dressed like a teddy-boy (making him quite the off-beat pal as this was the Eighties, remember) and seemed to have no trouble getting into or hold of 18 rated films. So it was that I first heard of “The Burning”, undoubtedly as we walked to school one morning. He filled me in on the slim storyline and, presumably, the nastier details. The concept of the rampaging burnt-up man certainly lodged in my brain. As this was one of the banned “video nasties”, I do wonder in retrospect how he got to see it. But only this much later in life have I gotten around to watching it myself, during which time I have seen a bundle of other films that have likely given me a near-to-perfect idea of what to expect.

As one of those horrors with a troubled history with the censors, “The Burning” has, if anything, probably increased in its notoriety. Some of this is down to nostalgia: it is indeed of its time and one of those films which contemporary slashers refer back to and copy. “The Burning” itself was already derivative of “Friday the 13th”, which was already derivative of “Halloween”. But there is a straightforward quality to these ‘80s American slashers, an almost low-budget earnestness, that later gave way to trends in irony and recourse to homage. “The Burning” is not devoid of satirical airs and it does possess a couple of iconic qualities and one seminal scene of carnage. It has the fan-favourite “Cropsy” as its killer (played by Lou David): a creepy summercamp janitor and the victim of a teenage prank that goes wrong, leaving him flailing around on fire and a hideously disfigured burns victim, courtesy of make-up celebrity Tom Savini. Its true iconic image is the image of the silhouetted Cropsy holding up the open garden sheers, ready to bring them down on whatever victim lay beneath.

As the modern viewer might expect, there is a lot of tying-in with sex, death and mutilation. As Aurum notes,

"the film is a particularly clear example of the Puritanism of this particular subgenre, since virtually all killings follow various scenes of sex play, and thus can be all too easily read as ‘dire warnings’ or ‘punishments justly deserved'. [1]"

Indeed, Cropsy tends to go manic after foreplay or teenage sex. His first kill is a prostitute who rejects him once she lays eyes on his barely human burned visage (Savini himself says that it is not a realistic portrayal of a burns victim; it is rather a stretched, silly-putty like hall-of-mirrors distortion). Cropsy is effectively rendered impotent, and in rage he murders her with a protracted scissor-slaying. It is as if the worst thing, the very thing that turns him insane with random fury, is not so much his disfigurement but the horror of this impotency.

Next stop: the summer camp, where there is a whole lot of typical machismo, posturing and preening. The girls seem to giggle about sex and flirt in equal measure: perhaps they are meant to be, if you will, reproachable teasers (as Aurum says) but there is a slightly softer and greyer arena of interactions going on; not necessarily due to any superior characterisation and writing, but just a little ambiguity and complexity to the characters work wonders. For example, Glazer the resident bully (Larry Joshua) is himself consistently mocked and rejected and, although arguably close to one, he is not the date-rapist that many of the other guys seem so uniformly close to being. He alone is shown trying to please his girl and appreciate her. When their sex falls short, he simply apologises and doesn’t resort to aggressive insistence on his virility. He’s not a soft romantic but there is the impression that he might have range to mature. By contrast, the other "funny guys" all seem much closer to genuine date-rapists, sly coercers and Nice Guys. The tension around sex and youthful exploration is probably expressed most obviously and sympathetically in the subplot where one girl is simultaneously curious, charmed and afraid of the boy trying to romance her. But it is tough luck because any step towards sex receives a pair of garden sheers. In this way, “The Burning” is one of those films that simultaneously formed and adhered to the slasher conventions and provided the material for endless parodies.

But it is limited to see Cropsy as only a puritanical punisher. He serves as more than just a warning and retribution, for he is also the manifestation of the girls’ fear of painful penetration, of their anxieties about rape and the loss of virginity. In one example, there is a close-up of the girl trying to hold the open sheers blades at bay as Cropsy forces in on her, which is unsettling and clear in its symbolism. Cropsy is the wild, roaming, ugly personification of all the rape tendencies that seem to underlay most of the male student’s interactions with the girls. One might even find a “dire warning” in the fact that “Woodstock” (Fisher Stevens), the character referred to most as a masturbator, has his fingers chopped off. And then there is the backstory of Cropsy: in the fireside version, he was a disliked janitor who followed around a boy with his garden sheers constantly in hand.

Ah, yes, then we get to the meat of it: the raft scene. This is the scene that defines “The Burning”. It is here that the garden sheers are most used and it is the garden sheers that got the film added to the BBFC “video nasties” list during the 1980s. What the BBFC doesn’t tell you is that many of those “video nasties” were also full-on black comedies. “The Burning” is full of humour: black, intentional and unintentional. The summercamp scenario allows the shock-horror gags of Tom Savini’s gory effects work to move through teen comedy conventions. Funnier but arguably less unique than “Sleepaway Camp”, “The Burning” is far more humane and proficient than the “Friday the 13th” series; for example, it seems to have more interest in its characters as actual people). Conversely, Savini doesn’t appear to have much time for the “Friday the 13th” sequels and “The Burning” is certainly better conceived, but it is still b-grade stuff and its reputation rests mostly on those garden sheer killings which are predominantly bundled all into the raft massacre. One can laugh at the idea that Cropsy ~ whose actual size seems to vary from this moment to that, although the intension is surely that he is a big, big guy ~ would lay down in a floating canoe with his sheers, just waiting and hoping that a raft topped with teenagers would bump into him. But the killing are indeed savage, sharply edited and graphically sprayed across the screen. If slasher films rest their worth upon the killings, “The Burning” doesn’t have the bodycount of Jason Vorhees, but the raft slaughter is quite unforgettably vicious. It is true that slasher films seem to represent the meanest self-loathing of young horror fanatics for their own generation, portraying them often as selfish, disdainful and disposable. But those on the raft seem, of all the film’s victims, to be the most sympathetic and the least deserving. That, perhaps, is the greatest perversion. [2]

Another subplot provides Cropsy with further interpretation. There is a close alignment between Cropsy and resident nerd Alfred (Brian Backer) from the moment of the fireside horror-story, which is, of course, the tale of Cropsy. Alfred is apparently bullied and feels friendless, an outsider and alienated. The truth of it is that his dorm colleagues all incorporate and defend him from the main source of trouble, Glazer the bully. Perhaps Alfred’s true source of alienation and sense of inadequacy lays elsewhere. Alfred’s confused association with status, sex and scares is clear from his early attempt to scare a girl in the showers in some muddled plan to scare her, see her, to woo her, and to impress and emulate his peers. All his furious, unresolved and latent desires to resolve his sexuality and punish his perceived persecutors ~ or at least to visit a jealous vengeance upon those that are ostensibly "normal" in a way that he feels he is not ~ all this is manifest in Cropsy too. Cropsy is like Alfred’s retaliation unleashed and uncontrollable. Note how Cropsy incapacitates Alfred rather than kill him off quickly like everyone else (and if we wanted to stretch: is Alfred left-handed? Because if he is, is that his masturbating arm pinned to the wall?). But there is something else that may be at play here, for is it really the girls that makes Alfred feel inadequate? Is it that Alfred may well have a latent crush on the moderately sympathetic camp leader Todd (Brian Matthews), or even Glazer himself? But let’s forget Glazer because he goes having sex with one of the hot girls and has "dead man" plastered all over him. Cropsy disposes of all the competition and leaves only the tale of the Alfred being saved by Todd the camp counsellor and then Alfred saving Todd in return. (In a rarity for slasher plotting, Todd the councellor finds Alfred due to the latter’s screams and howls of horror; no suffering in manly silence for this victim.) Many read slashers as simply misogynist, but in truth they also contain endless male insecurities and desires to protect friends, families, lovers and crushes, not to mention plentiful anxieties over gender, masculinity, femininity and sexuality. Not so much a coming-out pic, then, but lots of repressed sexual rage which Cropsy happily acts out and then goes on to provide a romantic ending of sorts.

“The Burning” is entertaining and undemanding, but it snaps along brusquely, has better than average acting and atmosphere and is no-nonsense slasher fare. It is probably exactly the kind of item that horror’s detractors would wave around as exhibit #151 in the prosecution’s case. It is also exactly the kind of disposable and nasty fun that horror fans run to for undemanding entertainment and, as ever, to work through all those social and personal anxities.


[1] The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, editor Phil Hardy, (Aurum Press, 1993, London), page 346

[2] This perversity - that the ostensibly underserving suffer as much as the ostensibly deserving - feels like something that Rob Zombie was trying to get to with many of his female victims in his version of “Halloween”)