Sunday, 31 January 2010


1: "the text…" 1:
According to director John Hillcoat, Cormac McCarthy felt that the voiceover in the film adaptation of his novel "The Road" was "indispensable".[1] It isn’t. It is another example of superfluous narration that gives the impression of behind-the-scenes concerns that the audience does not get the set-up without it spelt out to them. And this is a tricky set-up. The world has fallen apart, nature is crumbling, burning, dying all around and humanity has been lost. There are people, but humanity is in very, very rare supply. Into this world, a couple have a boy, a child who has not known the civilisation, wildlife and bright colours of the world that has been before. This world is full of falling trees, ash and cannibals. The woman cannot bare to live in such a world, and the man is left to spend his days desperately defending his son and preparing him for the worst. Which includes teaching the boy to shoot himself should it become necessary.

McCarthy’s novel is a true horror novel, terrifying in its depiction of a human race in its death throws of paranoia, distrust, violence, cannibalism and desperation. This then is the last brick separating a person from the inhumane: cannibalism. The "good guys" are those that don’t resort to it, but the good guys are in rags, increasingly frail and ill and dependant upon sheer luck and suspicion to get through. These too may not be enough, or ultimately right. Pretty early on, McCarthy indicates that this is a world where the worst will happen. The fragility of the boy and the fears of the man are upsetting and scary, reminding the reader of their mortality and helplessness against overwhelming threats. McCarthy does not write with the density of, say, his Border Trilogy, nor really with the stripped down efficiency of "No Country for Old Men". Rather he whittles his sentences down into prose-poem, a skeletal dance of vignettes and stark repetitions. But father and son argue, and through this we see that the boy is one of the last carriers of conscience. Conscience and kindness are the ultimate salvation McCarthy offers in a Godless, imploding, violent world.

This prose contains an illusive magic of grim poeticism and precision that does not carry over into voiceover. Hillcoat creates some stunning end-of-the-world visuals with isolated cabins, dead docks with tomblike ships, endless bleak roads and end-of-nature scenarios such as the man and boy caught in a falling forest, or the bleak litter-covered beach drained of colour. There have been so many faux-poetic and unnecessary narrations aspiring to what McCarthy achieves on page that when spoken it feels the same, and ultimately unnecessary. All the brutal beauty of the words are conveyed by the film visually, and that is as it should be.

2: "as the world eats itself…"
It probably looks just as you imaged as a reader. Ironically, in rendering beautifully stark vistas successfully, this may actually be one of the keys to Hillcoat’s adaptation’s weakness. It stands alone as a great and uniquely downbeat film to come from the Hollywood machine - typically and predictably, they seem to have had problems knowing how to market it - but somehow the grey visual splendour and the somewhat sentimental musical cues by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compromise much of the ruthlessness of McCarthy’s original text. The majority of reviewers find the film lacking in comparison, but isn’t that usually the way, nine times out of ten, with adaptations? There is much damning with faint praise, as with Phillip Kemp:

"Still, [McCarthy’s] tone, that elusive tone, is absent. If the film misses the resonance, the sad deep anger of McCarthy’s work, it’s a creditable shot at it; but for one of the most powerful and original novels of the past decade, creditable doesn’t quite cut it." [1]

But there is so much that rings right in the film, and taken aside from its inspiration, it’s such a grand achievement in itself that it is hard to see how it might have been improved upon. It is one of the definitive post-apocalypse/post-civilisation texts ever written. Just as McCarthy deprived his modern westerns like "All the Pretty Horses" of pleasurable machismo and vengeance fantasies, and just as he stripped "No Country for Old Men" of the same plus the thrill of a showdown, in "The Road" he deprives the end of the world of the survivalist thrills and big special effects so common in, say, Hollywood disaster epics. All this is to force the action of the novels to give way to the metaphysical and the increasing interrogation of violence; of its justifications, its effects, its catharsis and randomness, to lay it naked. In "The Road", there is very little else but the fear of what people will do to one another in order to survive. And then, later, you realise that it is more about what someone will do to protect the ones they love.

It also shares much of the same feel and despair as Robert Kirkmans’ seminal zombie-survival magnum opus "The Walking Dead", possibly the most genuinely traumatic graphic novel/comic serial ever written (and illustrated by Charlie Adlard). With landmark texts such as Richard Matheson’s "I Am Legend" and Harlan Ellison’s "A Boy And His Dog", there are a lot of open horror and action motifs. But it would surely backfire for Hillcoat to have upped the horror ante - we have seen Romero’s living dead and ‘crazies’, after all - or to have spiced up the thrills with Mad Max homages. You can keep your "2012", "The Day After Tomorrow" extravaganzas. Kemp feels the unforgettable cellar of horror is bungled by Hillcoat, but again I would suggest that Hillcoat understands that McCarthy wants the horror of it, but not the Horror Genre gruesome delight of it, which would veer dangerously into neglecting the humanity of the skeletal cellar victims. It is the screams that come soon after this seen that are unforgettable. (Then again, the flare gun death is sure to burn itself into your memory).

3: "and the end of the world…"
McCarthy is barely even interested in the bigger picture; well, he is in metaphysical terms, but what remains brightest here is in reducing the struggle for humanity to what is essentially a two-man chamber piece. We don’t need to know the back story as to why everything is turning to dust. There are brief side-characters. There is a great fireside conversation between the man and Robert Duvall as Ely, an old man, but many of the encounters become distressing by succumbing to violence, distrust and humiliation. The flashbacks try to open things up a little, but they feel mostly like intrusions into the pale austerity of the rest of the film. Mostly, it is for Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-MacPhee as man and son to carry the film, and they do. Mortenson is convincingly haggard, with the trademark flare still in his eyes, and although Smit-MacPhee never looks emaciated enough, his baffled vulnerability and fledgling defiance are palpable. The rapport is convincing and if you are going with the story, your heart is sure to be broken.
Hillcoat says:

"Cormac said that it’s a book about human goodness. It’s frustrating when people label film as bleak because the bleakness is just a backdrop. Unfortunately, everyone seems to focus on the backdrop. … The gestures towards hope that the film makes, the finding of the Coke can, the frolic in the fountain are that much more special because of the tremendous obstacles that the characters are up against" [3]

Well yes; the obstacles are that very bleak backdrop which renders those moments "more special"; they do not exist without one another. It is one of the wonderful mysteries of this story that it is as cathartic and emotionally rewarding as it is, despite or/and because of the dark context. But it seems Hillcoat has surely missed the irony in choosing the finding of the Coke can as a moment of hope - really? A potential symbol of the very civilisation that potentially brought about the end of the natural world? Perhaps the definitive symbol of American capitalist branding decadence? But I am surely being facetious: Hillcoat is sure to mean that the Coke represents a world of flavour and colour that has been lost. Myself, I prefer the moment where the boy stares at the mounted head of a stag: although little is made of the moment, we can fathom for ourselves that he has never seen such a thing before and the fascination it must hold for him. No, that is not a moment of hope, but it seems to me to perfectly capture the void between the boy’s world and everything the man knows to be lost. It’s a quietly powerful and upsetting moment and is surely the film at it’s unforced best.

It may not exceed the novel, but "The Road" is an excellent rendition. An besides, it does not have to: it has to stand by itself, and it does. Once taken aside from the daunting original text [4], Hillcoat’s film will undoubtedly stand the test of time as one of the most uncompromising and humane of American films.

[1] Jonathan Romney, "The Wasteland", Sight and Sound magazine, February 10, volume 20 issue 2, pg.76
[2] Phillip Kemp, "The Road", review, Sight and Sound magazine, February 10, volume 20 issue 2, pg.76
[3] Jason Wood, "Ashes to Asphalt"; Curzon magazine, issue 18, January-February 2010; editor: Nadia Attias; AquatintBSC, pg. 31

[4] I am a McCarthy fan, and I read often how important "The Road" is, how remarkable the prose is, that it is one of the most relevant novels of the decade, etc, and very little of this would I disagree with; or at least I do not care to find much fault with it. Again: I thought it an excellent work of horror and humanity. But my friend Omar has written a hilarious and accurate parody of McCarthy’s style in "The Road", one which also reveals how its repetitions, cadence and economy are vulnerable to readings of pretension, ponderousness, and cul-de-sac progression. I don’t agree, but the satire is also sharp and amusing. I wish to share some of this here, because I dig it, with Omar's permission: full text here:

Review of Cormac McCarthy’s: The Road

On The RoadThe man picked up the little book. He read it. It was slow. Very slow. Slow as falling ashes. It didnt matter how big they made the fonts. Or how wide the margins and gutters. Or how large the spaces between the lines. It was long. Very long. And slow. Like ashes. And as he trundled his way through the little book he thought This is a piece of crap. What does trundle mean? the little book asked.
I dont know.
You dont know.
Is it a good word?
It cost a lot of money.
A long time ago.
A long time ago.
How much?
Twenty five cents.
Was that a lot?
That was a lot.
For a word.

And he trundled through the little book.
You said that word again.
I know.
Its okay.

And he kept trundling through the little book. Even turning the pages was slow. Slow as death. Slow as ashes on your face. Time was slow. It was especially slow when reading the little book. But he kept trundling through the little book because two friends recommended it the same week. Not that he thought it would ever get better after the first ten pages. He knew it wouldnt. He wasnt seeing it through for hope but curiosity. And as he trundled through the pages they seemed to turn very quickly but very slowly at the same time.
You keep saying that word.
I know.
Im scared.
Yes. I know.
Do we have to keep reading this?
Because were the good guys?
Yes. Because were the good guys.
I want to quit.
Youre scared.
Dont be scared.

And as the man trundled through the little book he realized there was something deliberate about it. It was almost like the little book was going to curl up and die every few pages. But it didnt. There was always a little miracle. The little book would suddenly stumble over a few thousand words. Perhaps hidden in a cellar. Perhaps in a kitchen. And then he would feed the little book and give it a bath. But even a little trudgerous almost titillation couldnt save it. Trundlous.
Its okay.

Deliberateness was hiding there. It was in the short sentences. In the occasional twenty five cent word. In the deliberate spelling and punctuation errors. In the obvious spelling mistakes someone missed. In the tedious repetitive sentence constructions. In the formatting. In the word count. Yes. The word count. It seemed like the little book was only trundling along to reach a word count. A promise. Maybe to an editor. Maybe a publisher. Maybe a lawyer. Or wife. Or debt collector. Or film maker. Anyway the man soon realized he couldve written this turkey himself in a weekend and he was insulted. Very insulted.
Youre exaggerating again.
Yes. I am.
You promised not to do that.
You wont do it anymore.
I wont do it anymore.
You promise.
I promise.
Whats a turkey?
Whats a turkey?
An ugly bird.
Theres never going to be anymore are there?
I hope not.
Im scared.
Dont be.


Freddie Francis, 1972, GB

Much of the appeal of the Amicus anthologies come from their contemporary milieu: casually 1970s in detail, décor, pacing and a general era staidness that place the horrors in authentic ambience. These low budget efforts profit from a lack of embellishment and aesthetic that is almost derived from kitchen-sink television neo-realism. There is none of the lightness of touch of the ‘80s or the rush of narrative of much of post-80s horror. It’s Hammer-friendly (I won't exactly say Hammer-lite), with English stately homes and winding country roads and BBC accents, but also less stately and less aspiring. Amicus’ anthologies had fair allegiance to the trashy, the black-humoured moral retributions and quite thrills of those very comics from which this film took influence. Amicus also released their more famed anthology "Asylum" around the same time. If Hammer liked capes for its grim reapers, Amicus like bikers' leathers.

There is nothing special about any of the stories in "Tales From The Crypt", and their horrors were surely old material long before the comics they were taken from. Nevertheless, there is a general wryness and straightforward rendering that creates a palpable eeriness. Also, the film dashes through its tales so that the generic stories never outstay their welcome. Each of the tales have their moment.

"And All Through The House": The first tale in which Joan Collins murders her husband only to be terrorised by an escaped lunatic in a Santa Claus costume (!) takes place almost wordlessly over a banal selection of Christmas carols. It benefits tremendously from the drabness and warmth of the domestic setting and bland dialogue. It feels real enough and the black humour is unforced. I certainly remember the Seventies being that way.

"Reflection of Death": The second gives us a variation on Ambrose Bierce’s seminal short story "A Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge" again, with an additional unending nightmare twist also. It never quite involves itself with the grey area of the unfaithful husband not being quite the deserving cad these morality tales general offer - and Ian Hendry does much to inscribe his brief character with anguish and torn affections - but it does throw in one creepy reveal. In such brief horrors, that is all you need. The morality of these films in general is very conservative: the man is guilty of transgression of faithfulness, but from conflicted affections rather than cruelty, so the unending nightmare is surely overkill as a punishment? But these tales are all about righting the status quo and no transgressions are allowed.

"Poetic Justice": The third tale has a saddeningly aged and fragile performance by Peter Cushing (not Cushing, but the performance itself) as a doddery and persecuted old widow who just happens to dabble in black magic and one slow chill. The old man’s corpse casually walking into an ornate study, unnoticed by his persecutor and victim, is a wonderful creepy moment. Cruelty and snobbery are hand-in-hand and there will be terrible reprisals.

"Wish You Were Here": The fourth tale is cheeky enough to actually refer to its source material, W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey’s Paw" by name, but does provide a neat scare using Death on a motorcycle, plus an unexpectedly gory hacking. It is the least of the stories. It is the desire to try and avoid one’s fate - here, it is bankruptcy and death - that is the contravention. Or perhaps it is because the couple seem privileged, moaning about their lot in a room so full of trophies of wealth and status that it looks like a bric-a-brac sale. Sometimes, these tales are just plain mean.

The last tale is the most outrageous: a heartless ex-army Major (Nigel Patrick) takes over the running of a home for elderly blind. When his neglect leads to the death of one of them, the men shuffle about like the undead and construct a somewhat bonkers revenge trap. The Major can be seen as the heartless aristocracy, buying expensive paintings from galleries for his office at the expense of food of substance for the shambling, unseeing underclass. For all his manners and diction, the Major’s true nature is represented by the vicious, trained dog … and aristocratic malice and greed will eat itself, come the razor-adorned corridors of revolution.

There is nothing particularly inspired about Freddie Francis’ direction, but he frames the important images well and, as mentioned, executes a number of excellent reveals when he needs to. It may be a little flat, but it is as swift as it is predictable, and still fun in its flickers of genuine horror and evocation of a different era and period of the genre.

Friday, 22 January 2010

IT'S ALIVE (2008)

Josef Rusnak, 2008, USA

Another mediocre cover version which only goes to reveal just how sharp-toothed the original was. Larry Cohen - who created the initial "It’s Alive" films and drew out the concept and implications thoroughly and with interest across the sequels - also has a hand in writing this remake, but nothing here updates or expands the idea. This version seems neutered by all the mannerisms that have often compromised mainstream contemporary horror.

Firstly, as horror films are apparently only fleetingly interested in real adults in contemporary genre offerings, we have ludicrous casting in Bijou Phillips and James Murray as a hot young expectant couple who look as if they have only just graduated from High School Musical. If there is an enlightening horror film about young women giving birth to monsters as an analogy for post-birth psychological illness, this is not it. For his part as dad, Murray gets to do very little but maintain his designer stubble and turn up for the denouement. For all of his early interest in looking after his baby, he actually seems to do very little of it. No agonising conflicts of the roles of fatherhood for him: the difference between his part here and John Ryan from the original is like comparing a child’s doodle to a Picasso. We are left with the mother as the focus, but Bijou Phillips - who maintains her hotness no matter how messed up we are told she looks or how crazed she is becoming - cannot hold up a role that asks for so much more maturity. And acting. Her motivation and mental health are never truly explained or convincingly rendered as she tolerates her baby’s slayings and hides the mess (with barely a trace left, it has to be noted). Just because, you know, she actually really, really wants a baby, just like all girls do, and all mommies love their babies, no matter what they do, yeah?
Another side effect of the youth of this central couple is that the ‘son’ role from the original "It’s Alive!" is now a younger brother. We are presented with details for him - he is wheelchair bound, a loner and melancholy, and a girl at school tries to befriend him - but these go nowhere. Similarly, the missing cat - disappearing in the film’s one great surprise moment - is barely mentioned. Corpses pile up and get disposed of with so much ease, it’s a wonder Bijou just doesn’t slap her head and put her hands on her hips and go, "Oh, not again! Will you quit this killing spree, monster baby?" The film looks slick, has a general aesthetic of moodiness, is professionally shot, but suspense is squandered and emotional involvement is nonexistent.

This is one of the films generated by the revived Amicus studios, and it does seem a misspent opportunity, full of aimless performances and subplots that go nowhere. Again, a mediocre revival feels simply like a cash-in on a cult favourite. By reducing the scope of the original to one family and one remote house (and how do they afford that big place??), the wider social commentary evaporates and all we are left with is a queasy pro-life morality tale warning that girls who have sex young and then try to abort will be punished