Monday, 29 February 2016

Poltergeist (1982) vs Poltergeist (2015)


When the original Poltergeist hit UK cinemas in 1982, it was quite a big deal. Back then big budget haunted house movies at the cinema were, if not non-existent, then few and far between - 1979’s The Amityville Horror, The Changeling and The Shining from the following year being other notable exceptions.
Watching the original Poltergeist now it all seems rather quaint, with some very dated effects which were obviously state of the art at the time. Arguably it was a movie that hadn’t quite decided what it wanted to be, a fright flick or a family movie. This may have been attributable to the dual directorship, with Tobe (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper’s reportedly rather laid back role in the chair gradually being supplanted by Steven Spielberg’s more hands on and family-friendly approach. The resultant X certificate from the BBFC (since downgraded to a 15) showed that the censor considered it a movie for adults – it was given a PG in the US on appeal. But the homeliness of the opening scenes, and the overall sense of wonder and wide-eyed awe suggested by the movie’s grand special effects set pieces, point to it being at heart a family film, albeit one with some grotesque touches.
For the two of you unfamiliar with the plot, the story involves the Freeling family and their three perky kids who live in the newly built suburb of Cuesta Verde. Dad Steve is employed by the real estate company who built the homes and stay at home mum Diane completes the wholesome American family. Youngest child Carol Anne starts hearing voices in the TV set, the beginning of a series of supernatural happenings which culminate in Carol Anne being snatched away into a kind of spiritual ether – she’s not dead but we can’t see her, only hear her voice.
A team of largely winging it parapsychologists are called in, but they have to resort to the heavy duty if minutely packaged talents of psychic Tangina, who understands what the spirits want and is finally successful in getting Carol Anne back. But the spooks are angered further by the little girl’s return, for they are the souls of the dead on whom the Freeling’s house is built (parts of the estate were constructed on the site of a cemetery), and who, in return for having their real life plaything taken from them and their resting place disturbed, exact a housebuilding in reverse revenge.

1982 Poltergeist hasn’t aged that well, but the acting is solid and the tone light and very family focused. The arrival of Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina is still a surprise, an awkward almost freakish woman invading the cookie cutter world of the Freelings. It may be mawkish but there are some great scenes - Diane discovering the supernatural powers in the kitchen, and Tangina’s other-worldly speech about spectral forces, for example - all underscored by Jerry Goldsmith’s heart-tugging music. But this film is all about parents protecting their children, allowing them to remain as kids unsullied by the events that happen to them.
No such fuss greeted the arrival of the 2014 remake of Poltergeist. Well, except for the armies of critics who queued up to bemoan the need for a remake at all and exercise high dudgeon at the injustice of it all. Most of these critics were probably too young to have seen the 1982 version at the cinemas and were busy defending their VHS memories. And let’s pause for a moment – there’s something in that. The original was made 33 years before the remake, so consider this:  if the 1982 movie had been a remake following the same time pattern that would make it an update of a 1949 movie – would critics have baulked at this? No, but because with the availability of film via an increasing variety of formats time has sped up, so thirty years now seems like just a remote click away – also the spread of ‘geekdom’ (and I’m not using that word pejoratively) means that there are a lot more people around who have an opinion on remakes these days, particularly on the potential bastardisation of one of their sacred cows.
Gil Kenan, director of the 2015 remake, was five when the 1982 Poltergeist was released. So he was probably one of the legion who saw the movie for the first time at home. His 2006 animated flick Monster House caught a little of the frenetic activity and childish wonder of the film he was about to remake, and 2008’s City of Ember cemented his reputation as a young person’s movie director. Which is exactly where the remake of Poltergeist establishes itself – it’s a young adult film, granted a 15 certificate in the UK (but a more accessible PG-13 in the US – once again showing that the American certification system understood the target audience, and was alive to the additional dollars that a wider certificate would bring). So it’s likely that the UK target audience for this film wouldn’t get to see it until it arrived, in whatever form, on their home TV set.
The most important difference between the 1982 and 2015 movies is tone. The Kenan version is very dark whereas 1982’s was quite the opposite. The remake also uses a lot of the 21st century horror movie clich├ęs  – brooding chords on the soundtrack, a restless camera patrolling the house, and a lot of jump scares. The other thematic change is that the children are no longer the simpering offspring of the original, clinging to their parents. The kids in the remake are resourceful, plucky and smart. They are kids of the 21st century, and they make the 33 year difference between movies feel like a generational divide – which it is. Although the story and some key scenes are the same as the original, there are some important changes: the family, now the Bowens, have an aspiring writer mum and an out of work dad – far from being a successful household, they’ve suffered from the country’s recent economic downturn; the Tangina role is there but has been replaced by a TV ghost detective, Carrigan Burke - no room for strange little Zelda Rubenstein here (she died in 2010 anyway); the spirits are far more visible, shown as clutching hands behind the TV screen and then in more threatening form on the other side of the closet (yep, that rather hokey location is re-used in the remake – surely the basement would have been more in keeping with the modern feel?).
It’s perhaps the inclusion of key images from the original that weigh the remake down – the gnarled tree attack, the rope used to retrieve the daughter, the scary toy clown, event the haunted TV set itself – these were all effective in the 1982 version but appear clunky in Kenan’s film. The 2015 Poltergeist isn’t a bad film, just a bad idea. It would have been better to let the director free to make a film of his own – or maybe a live action remake of 2006’s Monster House would have been preferable – rather than restricting his talent by forcing him to remake a movie that, in my opinion, didn’t need to be re-made.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Forest (US 2016: Dir Jason Zada)

A few reviewers recently have been bemoaning the rise of PG horror - scary movies that limit gore, violence and intensity to ensure they play to as wide an audience as possible - and including The Forest as a prime example of why this strategy doesn't work. There are lots of reasons why The Forest doesn't work, but it's nothing to do with toning down the content - the movie's been given a 15 certificate in the UK anyway, a classification which is a pretty broad church and which most modern horrors seem to get awarded. And there are plenty of films that are scary without being overtly gory.

No, first time feature director Jason Zada's The Forest doesn't work because it's a tedious, derivative and wholly pointless film, which makes absolutely no sense even as you're watching it (as opposed to those movies where you get a 'no sense' hangover trying to understand a movie after you've seen it).

Sara Price learns of her twin sister Jess's disappearance while teaching in Tokyo. Jess apparently took a class of kids into the infamous Aokigahara forest in the shadow of Mount Fuji, and disappeared. This place is known as 'Suicide Forest' because of the number of people who enter the area to take their own life. Refusing to believe that her sister has killed herself, Sara travels to Japan to locate Jess, enlisting the help of Aiden, a guy she meets in a bar and Michi, a park ranger.

The first thirty or so minutes of The Forest had me looking up various sources to confirm or deny that it was a remake of a Japanese horror movie, a habit so beloved by US film makers a few years ago. As well as the 'authentic' locations (although apparently Serbia stood in for Japan) we get the familiar homespun exposition delivered as warning - the forest contains spirits, unhappy ghosts of previous suicide victims, seeking revenge, who will cause you harm if you stray from the path etc. But this is no remake, although it may as well have been as it's so derivative. To be honest the early scenes were well set out, good to look at, and boded well for something, if not original, then at least engaging.

The trouble starts when Sara arrives at the forest visitor centre and shows a photo of Jess to the proprietor (yep, she shows a photo of her identical twin for recognition purposes). In a nice bit of cross racial profiling the lodge lady confirms that Jess has been found and takes Sara down to the basement morgue where a number of bodies are laid out under sheets. Bodies. In a morgue. In a tourist lodge. In summer. Now I know that the Japanese way of death is rather different to western traditions, but this is, well I was going to write ridiculous but that becomes relative once the film progresses. However in trad DEoL fashion I won't divulge any more of the plot, except to mention that the body in the morgue isn't Jess, Sara does stray off the path, there is a lot of screaming and running, and the audience is left wondering what is real, what is in Sara's mind, and did Jess really exist in the first place? You probably don't need me to add that I cared not a jot by the end.

Acting wise it's all fairly efficient if unremarkable. Gimlet-eyed Brit girl-who-is-in-everything-at-the-moment Natalie Dormer stars as Sara and Jess - you can tell the difference because Jess has dark hair, although they both have reasonably convincing US accents. She does a pretty good job of being scared, and the camera can't take its eyes off her (I still think she looks like a skinnier version of Charlie Brooks but that's probably just me).

There's a rather unsavoury footnote to all this. Apparently Aokigahara forest is an actual place, in the shadow of Mount Fuji in Japan, and is renowned as a suicide site - sources tells us that there can be up to 100 deaths a year here - and a number of the details about techniques used by the suicidal are included in The Forest. Nice. No wonder that the film makers had to find another country for their location. Now I'm not an overly sensitive person but this all left a rather nasty taste in my mouth. Not recommended for all sorts of reasons then.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

The Survivalist (UK 2015: Dir Stephen Fingleton)

Stephen Fingleton's sci-fi film - his first feature - is that rare thing, a movie which communicates predominantly visually rather than via exposition, yet manages to convey important ideas about humanity and our ability to cope and adapt in the face of catastrophe.

Martin McCann plays the unnamed Survivalist, all skin, bones and animal wariness, who has carved out an existence in the years following an unspecified disaster (although we know from the clever opening titles shown by way of a two line graph that this catastrophe has been triggered by a sudden fall in oil production mixed with over population). He lives in a woodland hut and has become largely self sufficient, even down to manufacturing a form of oil for his lamps. He is ruthless in despatching anyone who threatens his solitude, burying their bodies for compost - he is also incredibly lonely, masturbating over photographs belonging to those he has killed.

Into this Robinson Crusoe-like existence appear Kathryn and her young daughter Milja, looking for food and shelter. Kathryn offers seeds and later Milja herself in exchange for sustenance and a roof over their head. The Survivalist's initial reticence gradually thaws as he enjoys regular sex with the young girl, but the three remain wary of each other - any one of them is capable of violence it seems - and lead a largely silent existence.

The backdrop to the formation of this uneasy family is the forest itself, verdant and tranquil yet containing hidden dangers in the shape of potential (and actual) assailants. The woodland is timeless and constant - as we watch it we're almost convinced that nothing has happened until we see the pitiful figures foraging within it. The rather staggering realisation that humanity has reduced itself to this existence (and in a later scene, a much worse one) in only a few short years since the catastrophe has taken place, as the eye is comforted by the green depths of the forest, is chilling.

As the film progresses rivalries develop, and the relative calm of the Survivalist's life is shattered - in fact we're now not sure to whom the film's title refers. In an environment of want and meagre resources, survival becomes paramount, and the film ends on a note which offers a possibility of hope and also a re-appraisal of what we've just witnessed.

The Survivalist is perhaps a more brutal and honest version of the 1975 BBC TV series Survivors - it's surely no coincidence that the titles are similar. Yet while that television drama often recalled the more cosy self sufficiency tactics of The Good Life, The Survivalist behaves rather like an adult version of Lord of the Flies. This is a strong, assured debut from Stephen Fingleton, with top notch acting turns from McCann, Olwen Fouere as Kathryn and the wraith like Mia Goth as Milja (who was so impressive in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2). Filmed in natural light and with no soundtrack, The Survivalist feels honest and bold - very, very impressive stuff.

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Carrier (UK: 2015 Dir Anthony Woodley)

Anthony Woodley's The Carrier has something in common with his last film Outpost 11 which after re-reading I find I treated pretty harshly. Both have science fiction themes but are more concerned with human drama than exploiting the fantastic side of things. So in Outpost 11 Woodley's cast are trapped bickering in a bunker in an alternative 1955, whereas in The Carrier his argumentative actors are cooped up in a 747 remaining airborne to escape the sudden spread of a quickly mutating virus on the ground.

The Carrier takes a while to find its tension and is rendered slightly confusing in that the viewer isn't given the benefit of understanding how the characters relate to each other until some time later. Some of the CGI is pretty unconvincing and I stopped counting the number of times where logic was cast to the winds, including the amputation of Billy (The Devil's Business) Clarke's arm, which understandably causes him intense pain at the point of severance but is seemingly forgotten several minutes later.

Eventually some tension is built up although as I mentioned it's achieved by all but jettisoning the sci-fi elements in favour of a 'who-do-you-trust' setup - in this I was reminded of the BBC series of Survivors (both 1975 and 2008 versions) which performed a similar trick. It was a mark of how limited the action was, that a sub plot involving the location of another plane (which isn't developed for plot reasons I can't reveal) was a bit of short term relief. Cast wise Billy Clarke is his usual unusual self (the Ken Campbell biopic awaits, Billy), but the rest of the cast, some of whom like Clarke are recycled from previous Woodley projects, remain pretty generic.

This isn't a terrible film but it does all feel slightly pointless. It's a step up from Outpost 11 but I still wouldn't say that Woodley is a director to watch.