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


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.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

I am the pretty thing that lives in the house

Oz Perkins, 2016, USA-Canada

Generally my superficial rule for ghost story satisfaction is that it be waist-deep in atmosphere and comes bearing one big scare. ‘I am the pretty thing that lives in the house’ delivers this, although I am sure its slow pace and somnambulistic narration will put many off; yes, your mileage may vary. It’s arty and modern in execution but old-fashioned in sentiment.  Director Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony) offers the complete opposite of the James Wan style ghosts, those that blur into demonology and embolden the concept of the horror genre as cattle-prod cinema. They don't even have the malevolence of those in MR James. These ghosts just wander around – like cinematographer Julie Kirkwoods’ camera that seems to get into every corner – and it’s the human’s reactions to them that defines the encounter. It’s a bold move, to resist making the ghosts engage in the pro-active behaviour of poltergeists to force scares, to simply allow their presence just to seep into the wallpaper over years. In fact, it’s just about popularist suicide to draw out the aesthetic and not to give in to conventions as they are now for the genre, for commercial cinema doesn’t really like to wait five minutes for things to happen. It seems that Netflix is showing that they can be backers and home to these cult offerings that won’t be for everyone.*

But this is a tale slight of narrative (some may say underwritten) and acute with atmosphere. I don’t tend to like voiceovers but here it is essential to the mood as it is a voiceover with character agenda as opposed to a narrative expositioning and filling in gaps or telling you what you are seeing. It works much like a hypnotist’s voice, quietly lulling the viewer as it’s saying how the ghosts of houses just allow tenants rent the space. Lily (Ruth Wilson) is a loner, retreating from a soured relationship by taking a job as a carer for a once successful author (Paula Prentiss). But she’s walked into an already haunted scenario. And it’s a feminine one too, pinned upon the vulnerabilities of characters as many great ghost stories are.

You may be thoroughly bored at the slow-slow-burn, or you may wallow in the measured unfolding, the deliberate passing of time. Its uncompromising nature is what distinguishes it, the thing to be celebrated. Have ghosts ever been portrayed so prosaically? Here they creep around and have an afterlife consciousness that is surely candidate for the closest rendering of the ambivalent but pervasive existence ghosts are often imagined to have in the casual encounters we all anecdotally hear. We see the ghosts long before Ruth does, time quite falling upon itself as impressions such as prose poetry and balladry take over the idea of straightforward narrative as we wait all the while for Ruth to have an encounter. And we know she will: “Three days ago I turned 28 years old,” she begins; “I will never be 29.” You can feel the makers relishing the old-fashioned tropes and showing that, yes, they still work. Yeah, and I did jump at that one scare and marvelled at its banality in retrospect (it’s all in the editing and reaction). 

·        Even Netflix offerings such as ‘iBoy’ are surely to be commended for their efforts in demonstrating low-budget ambition over big budget tendency to play safe.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Killbillies / Idila

Tomas Gorkic, 2015, Slovenia

A model photoshoot in the rural vistas of Slovenia turns into a fight for survival when the privileged fashionistas meet the kill-happy moonshine folk. Yes, it’s that old staple of the comfortable and brattish stepping out where they don’t belong and getting their comeuppance – hey, you really shouldn’t leave home, kids – and there’s nothing new in that. If you’re thinking ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ or ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and a hundred others, you wouldn’t be wrong. Like those titles, psychopathology is directly linked to physical ugliness, so you’re going to know the bad guys at a glance: ugly within and without. 

However, this is decently done with the original moniker
'Idila/Idyll' colouring in a slight subtext that the trashier English re-titling ‘Killbillies’ doesn’t have: namely, that in these holiday brochure surroundings, the worst goes on. The homemade brew distributed by the ugly family and beloved by locals seems to cause deformity and pathology. The characterisation and script are a notch above normal with decent performances. It’s bright and exhibits nice clean cinematography by Nejc Saje, has fun exaggerated make-up and clips through its routine at a brisk pace – it knows we’ve seen this before and doesn’t waste time being too stupid about it. Undemanding but fun, with just a twist of European sensibility to make it fresh enough.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017


Adam Randall, 2017, UK

Caught between Young Adult fiction and urban gangster clichés, Netflix’s ‘iBoy’ forgets how absurd its premise is, that this could be pleasing and that it should be having a lot more fun. Based on Kevin Brooks’ novel, Bill Milner is Tom who, having accidentally stumbled upon a gang-rape of a girl he likes, is shot when fleeing and calling the police and gets bits of his phone stuck in his head. This not only leaves him with a stylish scar, it gives him powers to log into the networks around him and he pledges to use them to get the boys who raped Lucy (Maisie Williams). As superhero powers go, this is promising as it means he’ll have to smart about things and there’s initially some fun to be had when he is discovering how to use his powers – like tracking people using virtual maps. But then he carries out martial arts moves and punches successfully after watching some video and the premise stops relying on wit.

Milner is agreeably vulnerable but it’s Williams as Lucy that stands out more, distinguishing a role that could have relied solely upon victimhood. There are gaping plot holes that can’t quite be avoided – so the assault was because her brother wouldn’t join the gang, but do they just forget about him afterwards? Do the police not follow up gang-rapes and shootings? And when the gang effectively carry out a mass theft, would this not inspire a potential crackdown? Wouldn’t there be some questions after the closing showdown? It’s all filmed in blue hues that just about steer clear of the grey and unflattering tones that usually denote neo-realism, but it’s all muted enough to make the cyberworld Tom’s sees pop out. There is some mildly effective class symbolism by having all this take place in the shadow of London’s Gherkin and Rory Kenear turns up to provide some focus in the later stages, but it’s never fun enough to pull it all together. It never quite finds a happy medium between its absurdity and it's gangster genre cruelty. Rather, it’s so busy trying to “hard-hitting and gritty” in a particularly English way that it fails to realise it’s humour and potential. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2016, USA

Over Christmas, I watched ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ which I hadn’t seen in a while: of course, I came for the Harryhausen creations but then it became evident to me that actually the script and the acting were a bit … lacking. Indeed, my Christmassy family left the room and I could hear them grumbling about “bad acting” in the other room. And I thought: maybe it’s always been this way with monster blockbusters, that the monster stuff is good but the scripts and acting are crap.

And ‘Kong: Skull Island’ is no exception. 

To the good: Kong himself is a frequently exceptional special effect. CGI has come a long way and it’s not unusual, with the right amount of cash and an army of multiple effects crews, to get realistic monsters that can stand up to lingering close-ups. Of course, we could be blasé now that we’re used to such amazing spectacles as the recent Planet of the Apes’ films, but I could  only dream of such photo-realistic monsters as a kid. Some have bemoaned that Kong is shown too early but I would say around the first three Kong reveals are good and thrilling. I had no issue with this, although it did imply a rush to the money shot for fear that the audience wouldn't have any patience. There is enough believable heft to these digital monsters that it’s all quite convincing. Yes, monsters yelling and/or plunging into the camera gets a little tedious, but the fights are decently orchestrated, paced and considered – including Kong battling a giant squid (??) – so it’s all good. That’s what you came for, after all.

But oh the script is woeful - by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly. And that’s when you start to notice all that’s wrong. There are many big names in the cast but this means very little when the material they work with is so poor. I mean, why are good actors even necessary here? Only John C. Reilly really comes to life with what he’s given because he’s the comic relief and has more to work with. But even then, he’s the Comic Relief, because that’s what this kind of thing always has. He’s with the natives, but the natives literally have no voice so it’s America all the way (…okay, except for Hiddleston).

Tom Hiddleston is the ex-army Brit whose introduction speaks to how the script seems to be mostly more just ticking boxes than really trying: John Goodman and Houston Brooks are looking for someone to lead their expedition into an uncharted island so they walk into a bar where Hiddleston is playing pool; he has some kind of disagreement and dispatches his opponents with a couple of violent super-moves and Goodman decides that he’s their man – all this in about a minute. He goes on to warn them that the island will be full of diseases, etc. – but seems to forget this major problem as soon as they land. He’s happy to T-shirt the adventure. But it’s okay: the film forgets too, even though it went to the effort of mentioning it. ... and anyway, just because he's good in a barroom fight, why would they assume he'd be ideal for an expedition on a unknown island? Oh, he is though, so that's okay.

Brie Larson is The Female, an anti-war photographer disapproving of male warmongering as females are wont to do, tilting her chin upwards all the time to denote integrity. But she does get to do some action stuff.

And Samuel Jackson is at his most annoying, fronting the troupe of wisecracking military yahoos. Hey, they die and they never made an impression anyway so we don’t have to care. Jackson is meant to look tough, but he looks equally bored. His character is meant to represent the bad side of the American military “Always Win: Kill Kill Kill!” mindset, and there’s lot of allusions to Vietnam, but these are meagre shadings. Perhaps it’s just Jackson’s character that is irritating.

And why in these things do they seem to think rifles can bring down monolithic monsters? But it’s okay if you have endless ammo, I guess.

And for an island full of gigantitude, shouldn’t the natural surroundings show a little more wear and tear? I mean, we see Kong leaping from peak to peak and causing major damage to the island. And do we really need fantasy monsters as opponents when anything else real could be made big? And this isn’t even getting into how Kong Is A Good Guy And Defender Of Humans rather than a naturally morally neutral, fearsome beast. 

You saw the ‘Kong: Skull Island’ trailer, yes? Well that’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ aesthetic: the editing seems to have been learnt from trailers, commercials and actions stills from posters. It’s relentless. Gliding shots over everything – not only over the island, which is understandable, but over a pool table, for example – which means the film is in a constant state of “Awesome!” which only diminishes the genuinely notable and remarkable shots, for example the vista of Kong against the sun and the cast hiding out in a giant skull to name just two (we don’t need a sweeping trick-shot through the native city to see how remarkable it is). Now, I’m all for camera trickery and conceits – I give ‘Hardcore Henry’ a pass for this – but here’s it’s in equal measure intrusive as inspired; it’s like the film doesn’t trust the quieter moments in case we notice how insufficient they are and thinks technical bombast will distract. Mark Kermode thinks the pacing is decent and that the direction has some distinction: I disagree. The monster fights are edited with coherence and focus; my problem seems to be that much else is directed as if a box-of-tricks has been dumped all over it, which I always think reeks of desperation.

And the jukebox soundtrack just seems by rote – by the time Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (sheesh, again?!) is followed by Bowie, I was just rolling my eyes. This just feels emblematic of how cynically packaged the whole enterprise felt (“Hey, people, we know from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ that you like Seventies soundtracks, right? Buy this one!”). It’s gets so that just the opening riffs of songs can be heard to set a tone and that’s it.

So, yeah, come for the monsters. I am reminded that this is the way with blockbusters but I should be the ideal audience for this – I am a sucker for giant monsters and, sure, there are some great shots – but when so much else aggravates, I am left gravely disappointed. Perhaps this has always been the way with such features, even as far back as Harryhausen, but for all its flaws I didn’t feel the cynicism in that; I didn’t even quite feel it in ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Warcraft’ (for all of their failures, they did feel as if they were trying for something individual), but I felt it here. Yeah, I'm nitpicking and I know it's meant to be fun, but it seemed to be so by rote and cynical that I couldn't find it to be so. I don’t demand much, nothing remarkable, not really, honestly: just a reasonable script with my monsters.

And oh yeah, the post-credits teaser for a franchise is crap too.