Tag Archives: Horror

Showing at the Watershed: Berberian Sound Studio

In the realm of modern popular cinema the expectation is that the craft remains for the most part seamless. The editing should not be distracting, the cinematography should not be too self-conscious, the score should not be too overbearing. Where these lines are drawn is the cut and thrust of film criticism itself, and one person’s subtlety is another’s frying-pan to the head. When a film comes along that tugs at these very seams, and indeed starts pulling them apart, critics very easily, and not unjustifiably go into fits of ecstatic praise.

Some British critics are going absolutely wild for Berberian Sound Studio. In part this is because Berberian is a demonstration of how intricately sound can be woven into a picture, and having established this fundament the film quite merrily pulls it apart stitch by meticulous stitch. Knowing as this process is, the manner of this rather brutal deconstruction makes for a really compelling film.

A 1970s period piece set in the titular Italian sound studio, the fastidious British sound engineer Gilderoy is shipped over to help record the soundtrack to a brutal yet perennially unseen Italian horror film. When the sound effect artists are suddenly taken ill, it is poor Gilderoy who has to step away from the mixing desk, and into the role of hardcore vegetable mutilator. Plump marrows dropped from great heights; heads of cabbage given the slasher treatment; whole watermelons tenderized to pulp; radishes torn stalk from head, all towards recreating the symphony of agonies bestowed variously upon set upon schoolgirls, and tortured witches alike.

The sonic body horror is one part of the chorus, and a rotating gallery of vocal talents are drawn in to scream their lungs out, or merely to supply the inhuman howls and cackles of the fiends which haunt the film we’re still forbidden to see. Add to this mix the lilting creep of synthesisers, and the manually looped and manipulated samples of music and noise, and resulting score is just as frenetic and souped up as you’d expect of a 1970s Italian horror film. Gilderoy is a consummate master of his craft, and in Toby Jones‘ strikingly careful performance can be found a quiet joy in just watching him tinker, manipulate and layer all the sounds step by step.

In focusing on sound alone Berberian somehow exceeds the fictitious Giallo it’s supposed to be shadowing. It’s neither breathless or lurching in its dramatic shifts; instead it builds up a tense and anxious mood which is never really scary per se, just endlessly uneasy. Which of course is indubitably worse in its own quiet way. Match this with an uncertain narrative arc, a seamless (!) if occasionally disjointing transition between scenes, and a final act which leaves you grasping at every hint of a conclusion, and the sum total is a non-horror film which is quite impishly beguiling in its own right.

While the first flush of the UK release is limited to the larger arthouse cinemas across the country, the alternative option of watching the film ‘on-demand’ instantly via computer can only be recommended for those too far away from an obliging bricks-and-mortar cinema. Like Enter the Void, Berberian Sound Studio thrives on being played in a dark room with a big screen and a LOUD sound system, and a tinny laptop speaker isn’t going to capture the uneasy creaks and synthesised hums which really gives the film its nervous life.

When the big studios are unremitting in promoting 3D as cinema’s last premium-worthy USP, it’s quite telling that one of the last films funded using the UK Film Council’s ‘Low Budget Feature Film Scheme’ can prove how vital the cinema ‘experience’ is, without the need for plastic glasses or condescending adverts.

Four out of Five

Berberian Sound Studio is showing at the Watershed in Bristol for two weeks from the 31st of August 2012.

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Staking a Claim for Kill List

Playing ‘spot the location’ with Kill List is a pretty thankless task for a Sheffield resident. The better part of the film is set either in soul-less ring road hotel suites, if not in equally beige new-build suburbs. In a Q&A following a preview screening in Sheffield, the director even made it clear that “it’s not supposed to be Sheffield, really” and that a local audience could probably pick holes in a story that purports to stretch across a large, if indefinite, part of the country. And a near anonymous backdrop makes sense for an occasionally graphic horror film, the emotional imbalance of the hit-men set against a strangely lonely and faceless world.

In a country covered in generic branded service stations, corporate hotels, and near identical high streets, the setting almost gives the film a universal quality; a dullness any Brit could instantly recognise. And it’s hardly the first time that Sheffield and its environs have taken the role of ‘wholly generic British backdrop’. In most recent memory is the 2008 horror Hush, where the lifeless scenery of Yorkshire service stations punctuates the stalking terror of a motorway trip from hell. Finding horror in the everyday is something you might normally associate with British cultural staples like Dr Who or John Wyndham, and both Kill List and Hush do a fine job of conjuring really quite unsettling weirdness in a rather mundane world.

Those in the know will already have spotted that the common link between the two horrors is Warp Films, the independent film production company based in Sheffield. Higher up the funding chain we find Screen Yorkshire, who no doubt played a big part in selling the city as the best place for filming. One of my favourite, if somewhat esoteric, of film artefacts is a Screen Yorkshire location catalogue, a lavish picture book of sites around God’s Own Country that can represent a surprisingly broad range of settings.

It’s not quite as wildly optimistic as this location map put out by Paramount in 1927, yet the case it states is quite the same: Yorkshire’s more versatile than you might think.

Yet the degree of recognition any given audience can find in a film presents all kinds of issues. My previous post on Four Lions stirred up quite some interest in Sheffield readers keen to pinpoint those backdrops they half recognised from the film. You could even say that the local audience actually claimed some small ownership of the film, with the film screening for close to three months straight at the Showroom cinema in town, representing one of their largest ever box office successes. The fact that scenes of the film were shot on the roof of the same cinema probably didn’t hurt sales either.

Stepping back from this local perspective, even Four Lions positioned itself in a broad and non-specific setting. Its backdrop is a working class Northern city with a muslim population, which could easily be any city North of the Watford gap. Yet even this regional nuance was lost on some international critics, with the film reviewer of the Toronto Star noting that the film’s bumbling jihadists ‘live in or near London’; a misobservation a Sheffield local would likely not take lying down.

But to return to a question of audiences and ownership, what stakes can we ever legitimately claim to a film? Sheffielders took Four Lions to its heart, but in all probability won’t do so with Kill List, as there’s nothing local which they can claim as their own. Conversely a wider British audience of film critics and genre fans have already started championing Kill List as the best ‘British Horror/Thriller/Genre Film in Years’, garnering it with awards galore at FrightFest, with and four and five star reviews both left, right and centre.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it still somehow felt uneven, brilliant in parts but never with enough momentum to give the story’s twists and turns the heft to ever be convincing. The blowing of trumpets and banging of drums which has since followed all feels a bit out of proportion for a film which is good but still flawed.

Yet like a number of others who share these reservations, I still side on the concluding remark that it is worth seeing, and that we should all get behind it, more of this sort of thing, yes thank-you kindly! The ownership here is towards something broader, namely an independent British genre film with a modicum of ambition. Perhaps it’s a gross disservice to claim that people like the principle of the film more than the film itself, but I think you’d be hard pushed to ever actually separate the two.

However complicated and thorny this question is, the film is definitely worth a look. If nothing else I’m keen to hear how the film lands with others less conscious of championing or scorning the film. And furthermore and most importantly, I’m ever keen to hear from those who might be able to contribute to the location map below. As before, be warned for HERE BE SPOILERS:

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Oh, Isn’t That… Thomas Jane?

There’s a breed of actor that’s strangely recognizable by sheer dint of being a through- and-through jobbing actor. You might classify them as the more than competent character actor, others have an even simpler function as the rent-a-stock figure. Rarer still are the dashingly handsome not-quite-leading types, whose old-skool Hollywood good looks get them parts in the strangest films. For the casual film fan these actors represent a familiar but nameless presence (“oh, I know him, where do I know him from?”) For the obsessive follower of film (and increasingly TV as well) their appearance is like seeing an old acquaintance. The more you watch, the more rewarding the echo of recognition, irrespective of the feature itself. Match enough of these appearances with unheralded yet unexplainably brilliant films and you get a dangerously unquestioning devotion.

Which is to say, I absolutely love Thomas Jane and the frankly baffling films he’s been in.

He partly falls into the category of the chisel-jawed would-be leading man, having even had a crack at the BIGTIME twice, first with the shark-baiting shenanigans of Deep Blue Sea, and later with dangerously wonky yet flat comic-book adaptation The Punisher. But for his failure to launch in these hero driven action flicks, it’s in the role of the Average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstance where Jane has really come to shine. The handsome everyman who in spite of his dashing looks is quite easy to relate to; a touch self effacing, a little world weary (but not resigned), and probably unshaven. Effortless in so far as he could not care less.

He pops up in a brilliant and rather broad range of bit parts and cameos: the bushy moustachioed drug dealing partner of Boogie Nights lead Eddie Adams; the high-fiveing officer of the Vegan police force in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; playing himself as a method acting tramp in Arrested Development; and perhaps best of all, a soldier at the end of Thin Red Line with a brief reflection on being left behind. Some might take the fact that Terence Malick cut scenes with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman from the final cut, but left in Thomas Jane in for all of minute and a half as sign that there’s something special about the guy.

My first brush of surprise came with a mob of friends in a videostore, for reasons untold picking up the unassuming Thursday. Settled architect (Jane) is caught up by his drug-dealing/guns-blazing past, with a series of increasingly inexplicable characters appearing at the door of his suburban home. The film more than lives up to its risible blurb as a ‘post-Tarantino’ film, but for all its deficiency of imagination in regards snappy camera work and shuffled narrative, the twists in the pretty daft tale keeps bubbling along.

Jane’s role is the hub around which the whole film spins, the man trying, and failing to be a suburban nobody, deflecting the increasingly bizarre procession of callers that come throughout the course of the day. He’s matched by the suitably smarmy Aaron Eckhart as his wheeling and dealing partner of old, and the clash of the not-quite-leading-men makes this a surprisingly strong pairing. The film’s pretty garish at points, and the ending’s a complete cop-out, but a conveyor belt of recognisable faces (Mickey Rourke/James LeGros/Michael Jeter) lifts a uneven script. The film barely works as a whole, but by force of a baffling cast, some disjointed humour and fair dollop of misplaced passion it sort-of pulls it off.

The second Jane-related broadside came in the nigh forgotten Stander, the embellished story of a real-life South African police officer turned bank robber. I’m sure the first  time I noticed the film was in the queue at a supermarket, the floppy wig, big sunglasses, automatic weapon, and competitive price point (~£3) more than enough to catch my eye. Cost aside, the film is rather neatly summarised as being about a man dressing in silly get ups for increasingly brazen hold-ups. Set in 1970s South Africa, Andre Stander is the cop fed up with enforcing the cruel Apartheid rule of law, and recognising the stupefying goodwill shown by banks towards white folk, decides to exploit the system. What starts off as a nihilistic dare turns into a rather elaborate scheme, with a criminal crew, nationwide hunt, and constant misleading of his police colleagues.

The exposition of the righteous political motives behind Stander’s wreckless campaign aren’t the most robust, but Jane throws himself into the role with a dizzying level of eagerness. The accents are surprisingly solid, the dynamic between the criminal compatriots a nasty mix of best-buddies and fiery contention. The disguises used in the bank heists are almost as ludicrous as the 70s fashion on parade, and the small but tight action sequences are underscored by an absolutely thumping afrobeat score. It’s one of those films where the cast are having an absolute whale of a time, and thankfully that enjoyment is incredibly infectious. By dint of being a rather small indie action film it’s probably going to be forgotten at the bottom of the bargain basket, but honestly, dig it out wherever you can.

Finally a mention has to be made to The Mist, the Stephen King short story polished to perfection by Frank Darabont with a cast of actors each of whom could readily qualify in the category I tried defining in the opening paragraph. The approach of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is pretty much King through and through, but Darabont brings an edge of physical horror with some gorgeous b-movie Cold War/War-on-Terror undertones to the piece. Jane is a jobbing film poster artist living in a picturesque small town East coast USA, and following a particular bad storm gets stuck in an old fashioned supermarket with his son when the store gets swathed in an almost noxious looking mist. Panicked citizens rush in screaming of unfathomable horrors lurking in the gloom, the captured crowd stuck in two minds whether to venture out or not.

The film develops into a sort of one room drama, with die-cast characters bouncing off each other in paranoid delusion, in bickering drama, in all kinds of stupid powerplays for control of the group. Again Jane is the hub of the film, the unassuming hero that desperately doesn’t want to be leading things, but who will none the less step up in the moment of crisis. The kind of hero we flatter ourselves by relating to. There are set piece dramatic confrontations, real fireworks that play right to the strengths of a cast of character actors more used to the stage than the screen. Then the monsters actually start to appear, or at least poke a toe in, and then things get a little Jurassic towards the frankly spectacular final reel. To say its bleak would be a cruel understatement, but through the course of the film you get pulled emotionally in every direction, Jane standing as the anchor you’re left clinging to as the whole world collapses around him. Monster movies with grander subtexts rank very high on my list of odd subgenres, and this comfortably tops that list.

Sadly 2011 doesn’t hold much promise for the Thomas Jane acolyte. A rom-com starring Miley Cyrus, whose title is an explanation of what LOL means, followed by an independent project, I Melt With You, co-starring Sasha Grey (aka, the actress whose filmography is probably funnier than many a film you’ll see this year). There’s another season of Hung due on HBO, which should hopefully see Jane on run-down form as the unwitting Michigan gigolo, but that’s unlikely to set the world alight. Not that Thomas Jane ever will set the world alight, but I’m ok with that, and hopefully he is too.

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The Miscreants of Taliwood @ Sheffield Doc/Fest

Terrifying is not an adjective you can readily apply to most documentaries, at least not beyond the subject matter at hand. Sure, plenty take horrifying travesties of justice as their core focus, and consequently make for a ‘tough watch’. The Miscreants of Taliwood goes one further in effectively making a documentary horror film. Anything can happen, and consequently does. The Doc/Fest catalogue somewhat glibly ends its synopsis reflecting that Miscreants is “at times difficult to watch.” The film goes far beyond that, occasionally to the point of forcing more sensitive viewers out of the screening I saw. Personally I had the good fortune to almost look away, to second guess my line of acceptability. Miscreants definitely crossed that line.

The setup is that of Australian artist/filmmaker George Gittoes, living in Pakistan, off in pursuit of the indigenous Pashto film industry. Micro-budget films that come somewhere between Rambo, Bollywood and Jackass, with political commentary and guaranteed midgets in every film. The heartland of this industry in Peshawar, close to the borders of Afghanistan, is closer still to political rule of the Taliban. As has been well documented, the Taliban hate all ‘frivolous’ creation that isn’t in the name of god, and consequently don’t look too favourably on camp action films with scantily-clad women. Film producers, and dvd vendors are both under persistent attack, kidnapping and threatening individuals, blowing up the stalls of those who sell the films. Still the industry keeps on turning, the producers on the run, the stars living an uneasy existence in an unacknowledged but ever present public eye.

The terror beyond the subject matter itself comes in the merry abandon Gittoes holds towards the telling of this story, his scant disregard for maintaining a register the audience can be comfortable with. Observational footage is inter-cut with overt and covert dramatic/satirical recreations, Gittoes role as observer pushed right to the forefront of the film by maintaining an assistant camera man at all times, consciously filming the filming of the indigenous film industry. When the outsider chooses to personally get involved with the industry, stumping up $4000 (US) and taking a key supporting role, his position as observer, documentary filmmaker, Pashto star and producer gets mixed up into a frankly dizzying mix.

There’s the palpable tension of watching Gittoes drive into the Taliban heartland to interview a prominent Mullah on censorship, an anxiety of the Gittoes becoming just another kidnapped Westerner, executed for the world to behold online. Not that this is played deathly straight, as on either end of the segment are some pretty hilarious clips of Gittoes practically falling over himself in the role of local action superstar.

The central question at the heart of the film seems to be what kind of film star is Gittoes destined to become: that of the AK-wielding Pashto action hero, the dead subject of a gruesome Taliban execution tape, or even just as a unabashed, exploitative and unreliable gonzo documentary maker?

The broad laughs of a Western audience at the high camp shenanigans of the Pashto film industry are all fine and well, but Miscreants’ brilliance comes in the genuinely horrific last chapter of the film, where this very laughter is turned to political ends. Taliwood is as daft as a brush, but it’s one of the region’s few areas of self expression. The Taliban are doing their utmost to terrorise this industry out of existence, and in its place only an industry of propaganda can exist. But just like Pashto action films, the execution propaganda films are pushing towards even more hyperbolic levels of audience engagement. Gittoes goes the distance in showing this horrifying absurdity by throwing an execution film up there. He shows some of it, he partially censors some of it. I couldn’t tell you how much as I’m no big fan of snuff films myself, and chose to close my eyes for the climax. Others didn’t, a few even took this as a cue to make a swift departure from the cinema.

I hated Gittoes for going where he did, for showing the unshowable, while still sort-of-but-insufficiently censoring it at the same time. I couldn’t quite believe the festival would let people see the film without a sliver of warning.

But then the film makes its points, about the indoctrination of the young, about the escalation of terror on both sides of the conflict, about the sheer absurdity of the Taliban’s hypocrisy. Wham-Bam-chew-on-that pal.

Perhaps it’s a bit cheap to knock your audience down, and then effectively lecture them while they’re still on the mat. But it works, the conflict is fucking terrifying and to do it with even an iota of justice you can’t shy away from things. Which is perhaps the ultimate cliché, but never was a stronger case made for it, and all the power to a documentary for going where mainstream news couldn’t go in a million years. A disconcerting experience through and through, and unlikely to be on More4 or BBC Storyville anytime soon.

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Video Nasty #6: Blood Bath

OR: Reazione a catena / A Bay of Blood / A Mansão da Morte / Antefatto – Ecologia del delitto / Bahía de sangre / Banho de Sangue / Bloodbath / Bloodbath Bay of Death / Blutrausch des Teufels / Carnage / Chain Reaction / Chimidoro no irie / Den blodige bugt / E così imparano a fare i cattivi / Ecology of a Crime International / Im Blutrausch des Satans / Kanli körfez / Kravgi tromou /  La baie sanglante / O Sexo na Sua Forma Mais Violenta / O krikos ton eglimaton /  Sfagi sto akrogiali tis idonis / The Antecedent / The Last House on the Left, Part II / To spiti me ta alysidota eglimata / Twitch of the Death Nerve as it was also know. (Inofficially this film reigns supreme as The Nasty with the most alternative titles. A sure sign of the detachment of the creator from the final product, if ever one were needed.)

[Early Sunday morning.
Sat in living room, staring at the TV, eating cereal.
A housemate’s girlfriend comes in, awake long before he is]
“What are you watching?”
“Oh just some half-crappy horror film. Video nasty, banned in the 80’s, and stuff.”
“What’s it about”
“Well, it’s Italian, women run around half naked and get murdered horribly.”
“How so?”
“A bit, well a bit like this”

Gruesome muder in Blood Bath aka Twitch of the Death Nerve

“Oh right”
“And lots of red. Lots and lots of BRIGHT red.”
“Right”
“This isn’t going to end well.”

Another murder from the film Blood Bath aka Twitch of the Death Nerve

“No, oh dear, that’s unfortunate.”
“Well that would spoil anyone’s day, wouldn’t it.”
“Why is it SO red?”
“Possibly because it’s shot on really cheap film stock. Decays very quickly, the colour balance goes a bit crazy. It is pretty colourful, now you mention it.”
“Is there any sort of story to this, or does it just..?”
“An old man and a woman at the beginning, one kills the other, then he dies, something about a will, something about some plans regarding a property development.”
“Oh, hello.”
[A bedroom scene on screen. From the perspective of the murderous voyeur we see the amorous couple get impaled, both at once, with a single spear.]
“Well, that’s symbolic, I suppose.”

Which neatly surmises a horror film which indeed revolves around a land dispute. The more inane the conflict, the more inventive the gore we demand.

In a film offensive enough to spook arch Dracula-himself, Sir Christopher Lee, from the premiere obviously warrants some note, but a sneaking suspicious creeps that maybe he snuck out not for reasons of common decency, but rather out of sheer boredom. The cut, thrust, slash and jab of the film is an incessant butchery of barely established characters for even weaker reasons. The critic might scoff that this is the very core of any ten-penny horror film, but a synopsis does not a film make, and there is scant meat on these very gory bones.

To even a passing viewer, such as the housemate’s other half, the gore is absurd to a point beyond the horrific. It doesn’t even stretch to a level of comedy value, with the result effect being much a kin to seeing someone drop a slice of buttered toast on the floor: ‘Oh dear, what a mess, nevermind…’

Blood Bath, Cephalopods, general ickyness

A single scene of a gangrened corpse being revealed beneath a similarly green tinged octopus was enough to momentarily put me off the Rice Crispies®, but that was more personal shudder than anything else. Not, should it be clear, that I have anything against cephalopods: some of my best friends are cephalopods. It’s just a bit too ick, in a way the rest of the film just isn’t, and more’s the shame for that.

A demented pull-back-and-reveal ending straight out of left-field is buoyed by an equally demented and deliriously upbeat closing number featuring the budget horror film staple I’m growing to love: the demented bongo solo. A cheery conclusion to a dreary dredge of a film. Save yourself some time and take greater excitement and trepidation out of the film’s quite superb original UK VHS cover, than you would in the sum total of the film.

 [The above cover is by way of the superb Video Cultures project, from Birmingham City University. They don’t claim any copyright, they just put it out there. Well done them.]

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Don’t Look Now on a laptop in Venice

Film is defined as much by its’ content and form as it is by it’s context. A boring discussion could be had volleying about film theory ‘til the cows come home on such a broadside, but film is about how we personalise the viewing experience; the company we kept, the events that led up to the screening, the location and quality of the material itself. A small revolution in mainstream film criticism could be enacted were critics not forced into a room full of other grumpy men on a Monday morning to watch the latest GenericRomCom®.

Repo Man Monument Valley Mitchell and KenyonRegional cinemas have tremendous history of tapping into the value of films of local relevance. From the birth of Cinema, with the factory gate films of Mitchell & Kenyon in the North of England, but also in recent history with special screenings or the director Q&A for titles of local interest. Entrepreneurial spirits have even taken it a step further with rolling projection booths that can show John Ford westerns in Monument Valley, or Repo Man in an abandoned lot in downtown LA. Using the immediate locale to bolsters the core cinema experience beyond that of mere consumption is about as great as cinema gets.

With cinema drifting away from the communal experience more and more, the value of the private experience of a film needs to be considered. It might make filmmakers cry (or piss and moan) to think of people watching a film on a phone or a laptop, but loss of quality aside how does watching a film in 40 min bursts on the plane/train/automobile commute affect a viewers’ digestion of a film? How might that come to affect filmmaking in 20 years time?

Dont Look Now The Venice WaterwaysMy decision to kill an evening travelling through Venice by watching Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now was a personal experience which went above and beyond the norms of most bricks-and-mortar cinema experiences. Fighting exhaustion and sleep deprivation on arrival, I opted for a film on the laptop over idle and banal conversation with the gaggle antipodean travellers that filled the hostel I was staying at. For my sins I’d never got around to Don’t Look Now, and by gum if this wasn’t the time and the place to catch up with this British classic.

The viewing wasn’t in-and-of-itself too horrific, and my proximity didn’t bleed into the experience of consuming the film. The frantic build up to the twist-I-already-knew-by-osmosis was pretty intense, but the film was over before I knew it. A few interesting echoes to Antichrist, the meaning of parenthood, loss, subjective memory, and so forth and so on. Still, yes, lovely, good film, lights out, time for sleep.

Dont Look Now Sutherland Christie in ShadowsWhile my sleep didn’t feel broken, I didn’t realise quite how stupid I was to leave the processing of a film like that to my slumbering self. At breakfast the next day I learnt from my Australian room-fellows that for reasons unknown I was repeatedly calling out and screaming at five in the morning in a language wholly foreign to them. I’m not prone to night-terrors in the least, but then I guess an unconscious exception had to be made for Don’t Look Now.

Dont Look Now eglise San Nicolo dei MendicoliWalking around the city the next day I can’t say I was particularly weirded out by my experience (and nocturnal response) to the film. The city was the same, though the pale and washed out colours of a wintery Venice felt a world away from the sweltering day of Indian summer I was experiencing. Anorak-ish compulsion forced me to track down the church being restored in the film (the eglise San Nicolo dei Mendicoli). But that wasn’t particularly cathartic. A very nice church, which surprisingly makes zero mention of the film, or its production, anywhere in it. It’s just another church in Venice, just a bit off the beaten track.

Strolling about in the evening was a little eerier, as it recalled the claustrophobic, echoing back alleys which Donald Sutherland seems to endlessly be running through in the film. The fact that you can be completely isolated one minute, and in the middle of a high street the next is strangely unique to the historical architecture of Venezia, and is unnerving enough without the recollection of Sutherlands waking dreams. The strange parallel between the crowded ‘real’ or conscious world, and the labyrinthine unconscious world and its’ lurking shadows/killers is an obvious if extremely effective one, really underpinning the flitting perspective between premonition and reality. The city’s casting is absolutely integral to this, and it’s a small miracle that Venice as a location hasn’t been done to death in horror films since. Only the recent Shark in Venice seems to think of the city as a natural backdrop for terror, and that was shot in Bulgaria.

Dont Look Now Julie ChristieGetting back and re-watching the film in the comfort of my own home I can’t say I was able to find any obvious seeds of deep set horror in it. I can only assume the film is actively working on levels I cannot even begin to comprehend. Which is terrifying in its’ own right, but this does explain how the film manages to both grow in the memory and get better and better on successive viewings. By all means watch it where you like on what you like, just don’t watch it before going to bed, in Venice.

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The Beyond

A word of advice: never, ever, attempt to eat dinner while watching a Video Nasty.

closeup eyes

That may be the most obvious statement in the world, but up until this point I’d quite happily whiled hours away watching Axe or even the autocannibalistic Anthropophagus while having bolognese, or the occasional pie and chips. The Beyond however, has broken new territory in terms of gore, effectively putting me off the film/food combination for the foreseeable future. The revulsion I felt while trying to have cottage pie during the first ten minutes of this film almost put me clean off Video Nasties all together. Faces covered in acid, melting and bubbling away does not good dinner company make.

sideprofile01Aside from the ridiculously stomach-testing gore, Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond stands out from the morass of films on the DPP list (covered so far) as a rock solid horror in its own right. A passable script which harks back to Lovecraft, a spectrum of decent actors who know how to look terrorized when necessary, and a budget bigger than cost of an average car. Throw in some location shooting in Louisiana, and you have a thoroughly shocking film.  Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, it has a cinematographer who knows how to use his camera, creating shots which give the carnage beyond chucking red paint around. After the flat camera work of The Beast in Heat and the sub-art-school student shooting of Axe, The Beyond proves to be a visual feast.

sideprofile02The premise of a young and successful woman acquiring a haunted hotel in Louisana is pretty workaday in terms of haunted house films. The over-reaching blonde, destined to be terrorised into submission, and eventual victory, blah-di-blah, heard it all before. The Beyond goes one step further by placing the hotel on one of the seven gates to Hell, and consequently hordes of the shuffling dead end up stumbling into disrupt our poor ladies renovation plans. Absurd as it sounds, the premise gives the film a bonafide hellish overtone, mixing unspeakable horrors with the restless damned crawling out of limbo. These are not just corpse-puppets, animated by some obscure Macguffinesque virus, but the product of something larger and far more sinister. It is, quite simply, the tagline of Dawn of the Dead come true: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”

sideprofile03Following the tremendous success of Zombi II (unofficial sequel to the very same Dawn of the Dead) and City of the Living Dead, Fulci had established his name internationally as a director of top drawer zombie flicks. Wary of being tied to such a narrow niche, Fulci sought to strike out in a new direction of horror with his next film. The first script of The Beyond was initially penned as a straight haunted house film, but under pressure from his zombie-hungry German financers, Fulci was convinced to include zombies to help provide a physical presence of horror. The combination was, and still is, tremendously effective.

The terror of the subjective is explored in full, with the film’s heroine is constanly uncertain of what she is seeing and hearing. An eerie blind young girl and her German Shepherd repeatedly warn Liza away from the hotel, and their warnings might be heeded if they didn’t constantly appear to her in the most dreamlike of sequences. Clinging mist, clipped dialogue and numerous doubletakes lend these sequences a truly uncanny edge. Liza is told that she’s just a figment of her imagination, yet the poor blind girl ends up getting mauled by her own dog. A physical and gruesome end to a weirdly ethereal character.

sideprofile04The gore is really testing, even for the most hardened blood’n’guts fiends. While the sequences leading up to the burst of violence are grippingly shot, the piercing/popping/ripping/bubbling moments in question are unflinching, more often than not in extreme close-up. Is it gratutious? In part yes, but the horror of it all has such an impact that it cannot be dispelled as frivolous. One sequence of a man’s face getting ripped to shreds by massive (dummy) spiders is particularly hard to shake off, and I’m not even that much of an arachnophobe.

The last ten minutes of the film turns into a slightly ridiculous rollercoaster, lurching from the hotel, to an explosive yet straight-laced zombie shoot-out in the hospital, to a bizarre relocation back to the underbelly of the hotel again. Before your head’s had a chance to stop spinning Liza and her last minute knight in shining armour have stumbled into the underworld. Stunned by the unspeakable and unseen ‘things’ they witness, the film ends with them blinded, glaring horrified back at the camera. A brilliant Lovecraftian flourish to end on, and a bleak and satsifying end to a brilliant horror film.

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The First Coming of Antichrist

charlotte gainsbourg in antichristThis is it. The eye of the media shit storm; after the cultural digestion from the liberal arts programmes and columns but still before the reviews start raining in the ‘official’ verdict. Lars von TriersAntichrist has been a fair while coming, but the great Dane has got the media machine humming to his tune, a maestro of stoking controversy, a grand master of publicity. To borrow the sacrosanct yet divine language befitting of the film I can say I’ve been blessed to see the film, and there is a lot to digest.

Firstly we need to establish some parameters to von Trier’s game, for those are the rules we have to play by.

Don’t ever take anything he says at face value. The hook he has given himself in the promotion of Antichrist is that he is ‘The Best Film Director in the World’ and countless hacks have taken the bait. Even if they all contextualise the statement and the humour in which it was said, the headline remains the same. Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times tries to put down von Trier by inventing his own word and denigrating that it as ‘pure undergraduatese.’ The fact that Appleyard continues to play this game on von Triers terms is proof if any that Trier’s declarations are anything but naïve.

A few critics have done a good job at calling von Trier out on this sport, and hats go off to the Guardian’s in-house film-hater-extraordinaire Peter Bradshaw for presciently speculating on the publicity value of von Trier announcing his depression over two years ago. That was the first word I heard of Antichrist, and it is wholly unquestionable that this is a film defined by a nigh chronic depression. It is bleak, unrelenting, and it spirals towards a hysterical ending. It remains firmly in the subjective of the female lead, struggling and failing to break out of a cycle of grief. As she is locked in depression so too is the viewer rooted, shackled to their seats throughout.

In its’ premise Antichrist is easily summarised, and its critics are quick to quip about its blunt symbolism. A husband and wife fall into deep mourning after the tragic death of their child. The ‘She’ is briefly hospitalised, physically debilitated by her loss, while the psychoanalyst ‘He’ carries his loss in a ‘typical’ manner. To tackle her ‘atypical’ mourning, the couple retreat to their isolated cabin, Eden, set deep in an overbearing almost monstrous forest. The husband is blindly convinced that he alone can give active and adequate therapeutic guidance to break his wife out of her depression. Despite promising signs early on, it all goes terribly wrong.

In its weakest guise this is a film about psychotherapy, and films shot from the therapists couch rarely grasp you by the eyeballs. Onscreen discussions on the value of medicated ignorance or the importance of exposure therapy clunk about in a heavy handed way, railroaded through the film by an increasingly insistent husband/therapist. Yet these doubts fade as the folly of this dominant approach slowly unravels, turning instead to a confrontation of cold rationalism against emotional hysteria. Put bluntly it turns into a straight up clash of the sexes.

This is hardly new territory to von Trier and his critics are all too quick to cite his major post-dogme films and the trail of ‘destroyed’ women he has left in his path. Dragging Nicole Kidman through misery on Dogville, driving Björk to eating her own jumper on Dancer in the Dark. While this rather glib trope of ‘dragging women through hell’ might be obvious in these later films, Antichrist draws its conflict from further back in von Trier’s past, harking back to his widely overlooked TV film adaptation of Euripides’ Medea.

A true archetype for the conflict and contrast of the hysterical wife against the coldly rational and distant husband, Medea casts the imbalance of the sexes at the heart of its conflict, and the tensions between the responsibilities of the mother (Medea) against the liberties of the father (Jason). It ends with Medea rejecting the shackles of her maternal role, killing her sons by Jason, and fantastically disappearing on a golden chariot driven by dragons. While von Trier’s Medea doesn’t end quite so fantastically, it keeps the bloody ending and the inner conflict of a woman uncomfortably vulnerable to a cheating husband she still loves remains as the films definitive dynamic.

This very anxiety carries over into Antichrist, driving a personal tragedy deeper into the realms of metaphysical and symbolic horror. Before the film has even been released across Europe discussions are already raging on the pages of the respectable press whether this film is misogynist or not. To boil it down as such is about as complex as speculating if the coin has landed heads or tails. Is the switch on, or off? Does von Trier hate women, or not? Such headbangingly simplistic debate is about the greatest injustice you can do the film, as it does away with the nuance of the personal and the broader issues that von Trier targets in Antichrist.

Chaos Reigns in Antichrist

Equally the excessive violence at the end of the film does not definitively flick this switch on or off. For the media to be endlessly scratching their heads over it is surely to miss the forest for all the trees? In terms of British exhibition this film is unequivocally a milestone in what can be shown on legitimate screens, and some media debate over the role of the BBFC, and what they think about Antichrist, is natural. Yet when it boils down to the usual claptrap of ‘but is it Art?’ and ‘What DOES it take for a film to get banned these days?’ you can’t but worry for the state of educated discussion of such matters. Yes it is shocking, wince worthy, enough to make any human genuinely uncomfortable. But this is just about underlining the horrors that the characters go through. When Oedipus claws his eyes out it isn’t to anti-titillate the audience, it is (arguably) to drum home the horrors he has just realised, to make physical the dramatic revelation of irony that has been building up throughout. This is the school of tragedy von Trier is dealing with. Physical mutilation: par for the course. Deal with it.

Or is it?

The devilish imp von Trier really cannot be trusted, and for all the interviews with director and cast consistently pointing to the sincerity of this production you can’t but wonder what ire he was hoping to stoke up with all of this. He has widely discussed the two edits he had made, the uncut Protestant version and the cut Catholic version, and with his canny producers’ hat on von Trier must have seen this coming. Undoubtedly, but for all of its most extreme moments Antichrist is none the less a tremendously challenging watch, and all the better for it.

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Steven Seagal Gallery o’ Shame II

Urban Justice montage(From l to r: details from the covers to Urban Justice, Region 3 and Region 1  respectively.)

Watching a low budget action film is a lot like playing spot the difference. The game of spying the be-wigged stunt doubles when the camera cuts to a reverse angle; the mismatched profiles, the oblique body language of a man waiting to throw himself through a door. It’s brilliant. Seagal of course takes it to another level, with his unique stature he is an instantly recognisable action star who none the less doggedly refuses to do any actual action. Which makes life hard for the casting director, as there aren’t many stunt doubles taller than 6’4″ with pony tail and 7th Dan Aikido skills. That is after all what made Seagal unique in the first place. Maybe the contrast between him and stunt double is his way of underscoring just how bloody unique he is.

With Seagal this statement of identity continues on the covers of his neverending stream of direct-to-dvd output. The above comparison plays on a level of uncanniness, a certain unheimliche in being similar yet obliquely different. This isn’t just thanks to the ungodly sight of Danny (I’veseenhimbefore) Trejo winking between the two profiles. No, the image is mirrored in all but Seagal’s face. I know he almost transcends the fact that a human face cannot be completely symmetrical, but no, body mirrored, head the same. Or correction: body-mirrored, face and shirt-collar the same. Or is it? I have no idea what’s going on there…

Looking at the Mojo Priest’s crotch (steady now), I guess we could divine that the cover on the left is accurate as it has the fly stitched in a conventional fashion. Yet to my eyes then the cover on the right looks more normal. Maybe Seagal just flies in the face of ‘conventional fashion’ and gets his jeans stitched another way. The Mojo way perhaps.

But is he left or right handed? Can we determine which profile is accurate from that fact? The internet draws a blank on that one, maybe some other direct-to-dvd covers might hold an answer –

mercenary for justice montage1(From l to r: Mercenary For Justice, Czech cover and French cover respectively.)

Or maybe not.

Whatever his dexterity he sure knows one thing, and that’s how to punch, kick and elbow other men in the nuts.

EDIT: Comments on this post have revealed that Steve Seagal does in fact wears womens jeans, flying in the face of conventional fashion. Such are the ways of the Mojo Priest. [thanks to commentator ‘xyz’ for that]

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The Beast in Heat

beast-in-heat-montage2When it comes to brow, the line between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ is a lot thinner than some people would readily admit. A case in point is to be found between arthouse rarity Salo and the grottiest of the video nasties The Beast in Heat. Being principally about the fascist regime in Italy during the Second World War, both gained an edge of notoriety for presenting the darkest corners of sadism, ‘an exploration of the drives which brought about the Holocaust’. To borrow a quote off the DVD cover.

Or to put it another way, they’re both a whips and handcuffs exploration of Max Moseley’s wettest dream. While Salo takes the high ground by citing the grand old Marquis de Sade as its narrative source, Bestia in Callore’s approach to the subject differs only in two areas: its budget and the audience’s expectation. As a late exploitation flick Bestia was churned out at record speed, rehashing material and actors from another WW2 flick made barely days earlier. The little money they did have was frizzled away on Chinese bangers for the few battle scenes which underpin any feeble vestiges of action. In a measure to save their precious money the wardrobe department of Bestia saw fit to reduce the costumes for ‘resistance fighters – female’ to absolutely nothing whenever in the presence of any Nazis. Bare flesh sells and the relative costs of getting some grubby bodies on screen is practically zero. “Quids in!” says mister producer.

In that respect Bestia skirts dangerously close to softcore pornography, and the budget of the torture scenes has you reeling in disgust at the grubbiness of it all. Not as it should be, reeling at the horror of The Horror. The farce of the cheapness comes to its culmination when a roaming camera in the fully operational Nazi torture factory comes across a poor woman strapped to a table with two black guinea pigs on her belly. You can only assume they were the cheaper, more docile alternative to real rats, but the effect it warrants is the comedic highlight which almost saves the film.

But you have to take such exploitative fare with a hefty pinch of salt. It truly is a film built from the title down, with more risqué alternative billing like SS Hell Camp, SS Experiment Part 2, and Horrifying Experiments of the S.S. Last Days guaranteed to pull in the idle Dirty Mac Brigade.

Coming up later in the Video Nasties list will be the more controversial SS Experiment Camp which only last year had Tory backbenchers bellyaching about censorship in the House of Commons. The irony of it taking the right honourable Julian Brazier MP a whole 20 months to react to the release of said DVD could be overlooked if not for the damaging impact it had on the BBFC.

The Video Nasties list stands as record to one of the many uncomfortable shifts the BBFC has been forced to make over the years. Yet moves by the same Board in the last ten years has seen the majority of Nasties certified and released in the UK, reflective of an open and some might say more liberal society. This might seem to fly in the face of the opinions voiced by Conservative Christian Fellow Mr Brazier MP and his rather backward looking friends at MediaWatch UK, yet these moves genuinely reflect the more permissive attitudes found in modern British audiences, reflected in a number of extensive and independent surveys conducted regularly by the Board.

Niche material such as the majority of the Nasties list will always pass under the radar of the opportunistic Mediawatchmen, so quite why SS Experiment Camp was singled out we’ll never know. Maybe like the Dirty Mac Brigade the spiritual successors of Mary Whitehouse caught onto the title alone and just went from there. Maybe they found out about it through their regular Nazi-themed S&M magazine? Who knows what these watchmen actually watch in their spare time? Who cares? Hopefully not the Daily Mail or anyone else with a voice that can’t be ignored.

For those hungry for a high camp ‘best-enjoyed-inebriated’ controversy-toting adjective-hyphenated non-horror should look up The Beast In Heat. Those looking for a good film could hardly do worse for ignoring it.

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