Sunday, 30 April 2017

Dracula

John Badham, 1979, USA-UK


A fine, sumptuous remix of Stoker’s novel. We start with the thrilling and chilling shipwreck ~ one of the novel’s greatest sequences ~ and soon discover that many of the motifs from the excised first Transylvanian third of the novel are to be transposed to England. Our geography is the beach, Carfax Abbey, the asylum Billerbeck Hall and the woodland and graveyard between them. Carfax Abbey takes on the atmospheric burden of Castle Dracula with an excess of Gothic décor trimmings ~ just look at that banister with the dragon heads! Carfax, both interior and exterior, soaks up the essence of every single haunted old building ever conceived and layers it with thick webs; production designer Peter Murton really goes to town and the exterior alone is gorgeous in its dreariness and decay. But Billerbeck Hall gives the Abbey a run for its money with a startling interior with bridges like the spokes and inner-workings of some broken giant gadget. Both buildings are defined by madness and aristocratic affectations. The overblown design is a delight to indulge in, every shot beautifully rendered and photographed by Gilbert Taylor.


The interesting change in this adaptation is that it is more about the female characters’ unapologetic sexual longing rather than their seduction, the former being particularly to the fore and summed up in the smile that closes the drama. None of Dracula’s brides, the film says, ever regretted it. There is little hint of Lucy’s purity ever being returned. She goes to Dracula deliberately, seemingly committing adultery against Jonathan Harker without a second thought. Noticeably absent is the key moment from Stoker’s text where those infected by vampirism are returned to their former angelic wholesomeness.

Whilst Trevor Eve and Kate Nilligan give stoic, grounded performances, everyone else, led by Donald Pleasance and Lawrence Olivier, chew the scenery relentlessly. Olivier utilises an accent to hack away at his delightfully preposterous lines and Pleasance applies a litany of twitchy mannerisms and mumblings. Of course, such an adaptation is only as good as its Dracula and Frank Langella gives a wonderfully regal and charming characterisation, eloquent when he needs to be charming, but cold and pragmatic when facing his enemies. He is more Robert Quarry’s ‘Count Yorga’ than Legosi or Christopher Lee.

The length and weaknesses of Stoker’s novel repeatedly beg to be re-imagined. Like Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, it is no mistake that almost every adaptation’s ending gets a shake-up, for the last stretch of the novel is the weakest. Hoisted to the sun, the final effects of Dracula’s deterioration in the sun are perhaps disappointing, but this perhaps is the film’s resistance against the turn-to-ash or go-up-in-flames finales of the usual vampire outings. The cape drifting off in the wind is just as evocative of persistent monstrousness as Harker running off at the end of Herzog’s “Nosferatu”.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Terence Fisher, 1966, UK

Terence Fisher again helms Hammer’s continuing vampire saga. Four British tourists travelling through the Carpathian Mountains find themselves the means and breakfast for the revival of the Count, instantly recognisable by now as Christopher Lee (as opposed to Bela Lugosi).

There is less overt seduction in this episode of the Dracula resurrection-destruction cycle: rather, there is the threat of being lost in a strange land at the mercy of malevolent foreigners and, worse, becoming one of them. It is the woman most prim and proper, most Victorian, repressed and fearful in manner who is converted into a sapphic vampiress. As usual, the war between Good and Evil, between civilised romance and bestial lust is fought on and over the female form. Even female vampires cannot resist the woman’s blood. A man is beheaded [-castrated] and his blood pours out to resurrect the Count. This resurrection is the film’s one true moment of gruesome excess, with Dracula’s servant Klove hanging the victim over the count’s ashen remains (having been destroyed by the sun in ‘Horror of Dracula’, and absent for ‘Brides of Dracula’) and slicing into his neck; in the original script, the decapitation was far more obvious, with Klove throwing aside the head, but the British censors objected and the scene was muted.

With Dracula resurrected, he quickly converts the
most frightened woman to his cause and then sets about a strange competition with her for victims; it is like the immoral, lusty daughter competing with the vampire father of date rape. This Dracula is, however, mute this time around (as David J. Skal puts it, “supposedly … something to do with Lee’s salary and a distaste for the original script”*), making him even more primal than ever, dashing around and taking his women rather than lulling them into submission. Key vampire traits are all present: fear of sex, fear of the foreign, big deserted houses, dark, forbidding locales, hints of lesbianism, culture clashes, religious hysteria and the protection of faith, et al. There are the quietly paranoid and hysterical locals who continue to stake their daughters ten years after Dracula’s original demise, as if they cannot trust even the dead sexuality of female bodies. Here, using the fractured nature and ‘states’ of Germany of the era, there is also the clash between old-fashioned Puritan religion (the opening funeral mob) and the less strict but no less devout monk played by Andrew Kier. It seems relevant that this apparently progressive monk totes a gun ~ which, of course, he never actually uses.


The film’s other memorable moment is what David J. Skal describes as “a gruesome, quasi-gang-bang involving a group of monks, a female vampire, a table and a stake.” All the rape metaphors inherent in vampirism are present. It seems appropriate that it is the one, nearly-raped female who fires the rifle shot that begins Dracula’s watery demise. Ultimately, the film scores in its stripped-down narrative, but mainly name-checks vampire folklore before a mildly spectacular finale (which, in a typical winning Hammer trait, closes the film abruptly with Dracula barely dead before the credits roll). The frigidity of ice had been shot and cracked, and the vampire has been repressed beneath once more.




·         “V Is for Vampire: An A to Z Guide to Everything Undead”, David J Skal (Plume, 1996)

Saturday, 15 April 2017

10 favourite film openings

1. Raising Arizona

– Coen bros, 1987
A fast and funny opening that euphorically yodels its way through the set-up and dashes headlong at the cartoon qualities to come. By the time the credits come in, the road stretches ahead with the promise of a fun time.

2. Dawn of the Dead 
– George A Romero, 1978)
 Dropping directly from a restless sleep directly into nightmare, it’s as if Romero already assumes we know the set-up for zombies and goes headlong into the surreal and brutal.





3. Dawn of the Dead 

- Zack Snyder, 2004
Zack Snyder’s style is ideal for credit sequences as it often resembles pop-video aesthetic (‘Watchmen’ has an excellent credits sequence), and of course we’ve become used to the laughable qualities of this technique; but there was a time where this opening – which is measured until it unleashes its attack in unrestrained fashion – promised so much from him. The film lulls in the middle but ends on a high note by steering for an island seemingly occupied by the Italian genre strain of zombies. And the use of Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’ felt truly inspired at the time – but since then, of course, use of incongruous music in horror is the norm.


4. The Accidental Tourist
- Lawrence Kasdan, 1988
Which begins with Kathleen Turner telling William Hurt that she is leaving him, a scene that films usually lead up to. Such emotional resonance is not ordianarily achieved so quickly and quietly so soon – it sets the tone of grief instantaneously. 




5. Dead Or Alive
- Takashi Miike, 1999
A bravura sequence of editing and outrage that counts itself in and then explodes breathlessly with a messy montage of sex, death, druges and food that leaves you so shell-shocked that you don’t quite realise the next burst of violence isn’t for about the next fifty minutes. A prime example of Miike’s “Fuck it” approach.




- Martin Campbell, 2006
So much promise when this came along to reboot Bond with Daniel Craig, immediately squandered afterwards. But this pre-credits sequence is in black-and-white, brutal, no-nonsense. It offered a James Bond as a not-nice non-campy killer, which surely suited a post ‘Bourne’ taste. The following films fell into their own mythology and felt we had to visit Bond’s childhood, etc., but for one film, there was the promise of something a little more based in reality.

7. Cross My Heart And Hope To Die



- Marios Holst, 1994
This opening sequence is like the moment just before someone breaks in to a smile: patient, holding its cards close to its chest, and then…


8. Down By law
- Jim Jarmusch, 1986
In which Jarmusch sets up a scruffy, jazzy black-and-white vision of a shrug of a town in which moments of drama are happening between people… somewhere… Of course, it helps to have Tom Waits in person and on the soundtrack to cast a freewheeling, amused and slightly melancholic mood. It’s a mood that lasts the whole film.




9. The Hunger 
-  Tony Scott, 1983
The rest of the film loses itself quickly by mistaking Eighties artiness and pretty visuals for poignant abstraction, but the opening-as-music-video introduces Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as vampires as Bauhaus perform ‘Bela Legosi’s Dead’ and captures the Goth vibe perfectly. 



10. Fanny and Alexander



- Ingmar Bergman, 1982
In Which Bergman portrays warm if dysfunctional family festivities before footnoting this with Death casually crossing a room without flinching in tone at all. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Free Fire

Ben Wheatley, 2016, France-UK

Perhaps  Ben Wheatley’s most straightforward concoction: a gun deal gone wrong due to personality clashes. Violent, funny, an unambiguous romp through a well-worn crime scenario. The humour comes not only from the dialogue – script by Wheatley and Amy Jump – but because there is no illusion that anyone is truly in control of the bullets. In fact, the poster with the characters apparently shooting one another in a circle implies more aim and accuracy. The film takes a moment to show how Cillian Murphy might be good in a shotting-range context, but when the shootout begins this skill doesn’t seem to guarantee much. It’s funny when the chaos finds its mark. If sometimes the audience is wondering who is shooting at who, that’s surely by design. The bullets zip, roar, ricochet and sometimes hit what they’re meant to – it’s a great sound mix. Wheatley has spoken of feeling numbed by the CGI bloodless slaughter and mass destruction that mark tentpole blockbusters and also of an FBI report he read of a shootout which had multiple participants that took a long while to play out. This has inspired a more reality based conception of a shootout as messy and protracted that allows plenty of slapstick. 

Sharlto Copley looks like he might run-away with it all due to being the most jokey character, but that would be impossible with such a uniformly strong cast. Everyone breathes life into these criminal lowlife types, enough to carry it all through. They are scum, but it’s entertaining to see them go at each other. The Seventies period setting allows John Denver on 8-Track and an absence of mobile phones – so the phone in the office becomes something worth fighting for and this also allows for a good phone gag – but the premise is timeless: armed people will always fight, over grudges, over stupidity, over ego, to be cool. Killing your opponent will solve everything. It’s a movie where a repeated gag is that someone’s wounds will probably take an hour or so to really put them out. There’s a moment where a stricken hitman calls out for the hospital, which speaks to the general tone of absurdism and which is rare in for a gun-battle: it implies that they somehow all think this a game where, should you actually get hit, a rule is you can call for medical assistance; or that they think they won’t be the one to be hit. This speaks to the affectations of genre and also the misplaced ego a firearm endows on the owner. Indeed, everyone seems to think they have to shoot it out rather than find out how to escape with their lives. (If you want to see political allegory in this, you can.)

‘Free Fire’ is both superficial – it’s widely entertaining and probably Wheatley’s most shallow project – and admirable in trying to inject some verisimilitude into a scenario that typically takes a few minutes in other films. By the end, the injured are only able to mostly crawl and limp, drained of energy from blood loss. It turns into a comedy of character clashes and a slapstick shootout that hurts and kills, and it’s fun.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Scherzo Diabolico - Evil Games

Adrián García Bogliano, 2015, Mexico-USA

Bogliano’s films seem cursed with superficial misreprentation when released in the UK. Metrodome's cover for his excellent Here Comes the Devil makes it looks like some ‘Omen’ derivative when it is anything but. The general packaging of ‘Scherzo Diabolico’ highlights the “sexy schoolgirl as captive (foreplay edition)” angle when the film itself is very careful concerning this, for she is not kidnapped for sex. The packaging even has her sucking on a lollipop. And the title 'Evil Games' sounds like the name was taken from a horror pick-and-mix.

Perhaps this speaks of the slipperiness of Bogliano’s ideas: on the one side they are lodged in established horror tropes, but on the other he is playful and tweaks those tropes so that the finished product is not so cliché. When I first saw ‘Scherzo Diabolico’ at “Frightfest” I had no idea that it came foregrounded with the schoolgirl-with-a-baseball-bat image, so when Daniela Soto Vell turns vengeful psycho it was quite unexpected. Now that image is the thing that makes this saleable without the finesse that the film exhibits. This means if you are there for the kick-ass schoolgirl, you are bound to be disappointed because her vengeance is not fully heroic. And Francisco Barreiro’s motivation is not sexual but more ambition and monetary as it is all in his plan for promotion (even when he takes nude photos, it is more inspired by the desire to ruin his boss).

The pace is fast and elliptical: this means that it may take a scene or two to recognise exactly what has happened; motivation is not spelt out from the start therefore leaving many possibilities open; the skipping over overt explication – dialogue is secondary – means also that plot holes can be mostly hop-and-skipped over. Bogliano keeps things semi-elusive, brisk and quirky, full of eccentric moments such as the wife returning from a party in a Wonder Woman outfit, or the abduction taking place in a vibrantly graffitied alleyway, or his abductor’s mask looking like a Day of the Dead prop. Bogliano’s scripts are also mean and cruel in the best horror tradition and therefore leave an upsetting aftertaste: it’s like he doesn’t just see horror as something that happens to you but as an external force toying with you. 

IMDB tags it as a comedy (!!) which speaks of the black humour that lingers in the air even though there is nothing funny on screen at all. It’s in the tone of things, the way that Barreiro uses his son to calculate the weight of a body, for example. But then it moves almost without warning from cruelty to gut-wrenching brutality before ending on a note that won’t let you think it’s funny at all. 



Saturday, 1 April 2017

Life

Daniel Espinosa, 2017, USA

Surely it was obvious from the trailer that this was going to be an unambitious ‘Alien’ derivative – and it is. It starts with a long, single take that takes in the entire first scene and gives us a guided tour of the spaceship and crew/victims. This moment and the subsequent “in space” views follow the precedent set by ‘Gravity’. They take onboard a sample of Martian soil and find in a living organism. It’s named “Calvin” by kids back on Earth and soon does what we expect: whilst the humans are falling for it, it starts growing and learning and we just wait for it to turn the tables. Perhaps inevitably, these opening scenes are where the alien is most fascinating, showing its cunning in making a scalpel to wield and then scrambling around the room to make its escape. Then it begins to work its way through the crew, full of actors who are much better than the material but having fun anyhow. There is nothing new here but if you came for the alien, its displays state-of-the-art effects and, perhaps more importantly, “Calvin” is mostly great and fearsome.

In conversation, I was recently in full-flow when berating ‘Kong: Skull Island’ when my friend said, “I think you’re over-thinking it. It’s a film about a giant ape hitting things.” And guilty as charged - that's what I'm here for - but that was because I felt insulted at how it was served up and that meant I didn't feel like enjoying myself so much. It wasn’t the monster stuff I had a problem with – I could even overlook the fact that the island didn’t display at all the wear-and-tear of behemoths and other failures in internal logic – but everything else seemed lazy and weaker. Talking about the original ‘King Kong’ with another friend and I was saying that maybe we overlooked the “Monsters Good/Script Bad” rule that besets these things because that was old, but in the end we agreed that the original ‘Kong’ classic had archetypes that didn’t insult us in the same way. We expect new films to know better, I guess. 

All this to say that even if ‘Life’ is derivative, it serves up a good monster and has a decent script, and therefore is genuinely fun. It doesn’t deliver more than it promises but it entertains.