Wednesday, 23 August 2017

New Films Round-up #10 - Reviews of We Go On (USA 2016), Voice of the Stone (USA/Italy 2017), Brackenmore (Ireland 2016), Media Studies (UK 2017), The Triangle (USA 2016) and 68 Kill (USA 2017)

We Go On (USA 2017: Dir Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton)  Holland and Mitton previously wrote and directed the rather odd, atmospheric 'missing townsfolk' film YellowBrickRoad and the 'Listen' segment of the 2013 anthology Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear. They're back with this very likeable, if a little uneven supernatural movie with comic flourishes.

Miles Grissom (very well played by Clark Freeman) is a young guy, obsessed with thoughts of his own mortality after losing his father at a young age, who is desperate for first hand proof that there is life after death. He offers $30,000 via a newspaper advert for anyone who can convince him conclusively that there are such things as ghosts. Aided by his mum Charlotte (a sensitive performance from the still vivacious Annette O'Toole, whose luminous presence in the movie served to remind me how little she's been seen on the big screen in her career) the two sift through the responses, meeting up with a man of science, who proves to be a fake, and a medium who seems like the real thing.

Miles then meets Nelson, who works for the local airport, and shows him something that provides the irrefutable proof that he needs, but at a price. He is now haunted by a figure, stuck between worlds, whose only chance of release is for Miles to perform an act of murder.

We Go On is that rare thing, a film which manages to elicit laughs, raise chills and occasionally a lump in the throat. Miles is a complex character whose neuroses would repel viewers in less talented hands than Freeman's, and his touching relationship with his mother (this is pretty much a two hander movie) gives an emotional depth I was quite unprepared for. In some ways the film touches on some similar themes to this year's A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, but whereas that film was a (failed) meditation on love, loss and time, this is probably nearer to a low budget Poltergeist (1982) in exploring the worlds beyond and the human interaction with them. Very enjoyable and distinctly bittersweet, I look forward to seeing more work from Holland and Mitton.

Voice From the Stone (USA/Italy 2017: Dir Eric D. Howell) Baby-faced Emilia Clarke is Verena, a nurse in 1950s Italy, with a successful track record of staying with families and healing young people, in Eric D. Howell's distinctly autumnal supernatural drama, which takes more than a few stylistic notes from Nick Murphy's 2011 movie The Awakening.

Verena moves in with a family whose young son Jakob has remained both mute and uncommunicative following the death of his mother Malvina from an unknown illness. The boy's father, Klaus, is both in mourning for his wife and frustrated at attempts by previous nurses to draw Jakob out of himself. Verena spends a lot of time drifting around the Tuscan mansion where the family live, but her attempts to get him to speak are slow going. In fact this is all rather slow, perhaps reminiscent of a winter costume TV drama, where all the money seems to have been spent on the clothes and location rather than the script.

Into this admittedly beautifully shot but rather tepid drama a romance builds between Verena and Klaus, and before you know it things have all gone a bit Henry - not M.R.- James, and any supernatural elements are supplanted by heaving bosoms and furrowed brows. The final scenes suggest that some form of transference might have happened, but it's all rather bland and inconsequential by this point. The movie is an adaptation of a 1996 novel by Italian author Silvio Raffo called La voce della Pietra, which judging by the story is probably heavily indebted to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Pretty but empty.

Brackenmore (Ireland 2016: Dir Chris Kemble, J.P. Davidson) Surviving a car crash back in Southern Ireland which kills both her parents, little Kate grows up and moves to London, with no memory of the event. When an uncle dies, leaving her a house, she moves back to her home village of Brackenmore to sort things out. But strange things happen while she's there, and Kate begins to feel that the village is harbouring a secret. Do the strange symbols she sees indicate something sinister, or is she just distraught at the failed relationship she's left behind in London? And can she really trust new guy on the scene Tom, who seems to good to be true?

Of course he is, and if you're ever seen Kill List or A Wicker Man you probably know the answer to the other questions as well. Brackenmore is a very slow paced, but enigmatic and beautifully shot film about small communities and how they deal with outsiders. Its central 'weird' premise is decidedly undercooked, however, which means the film is all build up and no last reel delivery, or at least a climax to justify the ponderous pace of the first hour.

Sophie Hopkins, an accomplished actor, seems rather uncertain in the role of adult Katy, and DJ McGrath as Tom fares little better. It's a pity, as with more convincing leads and a better script this may have gripped. But it's lovely to look at, and doesn't outstay its welcome at just over an hour - it just doesn't offer anything new or inventive.

Media Studies (UK 2017/2015: Dir Warren Dudley)  It's getting on for twenty years since The Blair Witch Project (1999) and I think we have to conclude that the 'found footage' film is now here to stay. The people in front of and behind the camera in Media Studies were toddlers when that movie came out, so, bless 'em, they'll not have known a time before shaky cams and pointless running and screaming in films.

Three young filmmakers, Raz, Raz's girlfriend Charlie and classmate Jess are given an end of term Media Studies project, to make a film and include lots of extras showing behind the scenes footage of how it was put together - a rather flimsy ruse to justify Raz filming everything. But hang on, haven't we seen these three before? Why yes, in Warren Dudley's last but one movie, 2015's The Cutting Room, which featured the trio as, you guessed it, three college students at work on an end of year Media Studies project...ah, it's the same film, repackaged with a more subtle title for the arthouse crowd. Come on, who'd fall for that bit of marketing? Oh.

Anyhow, our three chums decide to make a film about cyber-bullying. They focus on a girl who has gone missing in the locality following some on line persecution, interviewing family and friends but mainly bickering between themselves (quite convincingly, as it happens) about the process of making the doc. After another girl goes missing, the trail leads them to an abandoned barracks, where they uncover the secret behind the missing and, in so doing, must fight for their life.

I confess that I quite liked this. The three actors playing the students are sufficiently morose to convince (Charlie particularly, played by Lucy-Jane Quinlan, captures the sulky 'whatevs' mood perfectly), and in a nice have-your-cake-and-eat-it moment, there's a parody of TBW earlier on in the film, but then the director mines the same film for his final reel tension. And tense it is too, with a rather good end of movie reveal that I wasn't expecting. By no means a fantastic film, but competent and with a very personable cast.

The Triangle (USA 2016: Dir David Blair, Nathaniel Peterson, Adam Pitman, Andrew Rizzo and Adam Stilwell) Yep, it's more 'found footage' but this time served up as a proper documentary which is so well made, acted and edited that had you come in after the credits you could easily be fooled that this wasn't fiction.

Summoned via a postcard from a friend, a group of young (ish) filmmakers travel to the heart of Montana to seek out their mate who has joined a commune. But before you summon up thoughts of cults and films like Ti West's The Sacrament, this group of truth seekers seem to be a lot less loony tunes than the average. Quite what their credo is remains undefined for most of the film, but, as many critics have commented, the less you know about The Triangle the better.

The filmmakers are slowly introduced to and accepted by the commune, and find them to be independently minded old school hippies. Much of the film is devoted to the observance of their routines and rituals, which does make things rather slow going. Thankfully the characters are well defined and the film is shot very convincingly; after a while this viewer became rather envious of the lifestyle he was witnessing. But of course it can't end happily, although to comment more would be to give a way the big reveal.

Like most FF films this is really something out of nothing, but the film's directors use a kind of cinematic sleight of hand to persuade you that there's more bulk to The Triangle than actually exists. The good news is that the trick works - the bleak Montana mountainscapes are a great backdrop to the circle of yurts that is the commune's home, and it's that sense of oppressive arid environment encroaching on the idyllic lives of the communards that leaves the lasting impression. Not action packed then, but very good.

68 Kill (USA 2017: Dir Trent Haga) "A punk-rock after hours about femininity, masculinity and the theft of $68,000" is how this one's described in the publicity. Full of characters best described as Rob Zombie-lite, 68 Kill is playing at this year's FrightFest, and I can't help feeling that despite the smart script and sharp performances, this is going to disappoint the horror crowd.

Matthew Gray stars as Chip, as luckless and stuck as the fly caught in spilt honey under the credits at the start of the movie. His rather dominant and morally wayward girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, as impressive as when I last saw her in Excision) shtups the landlord in lieu of rent and has her eye on the 68 large in his safe, aiming for a new start in life. Roping in Chip for a spot of housebreaking, things go wrong when Liza kills the landlord and seems to get off on it. The two escape with the money, and what follows is a road trip across the southern states with Chip falling into bad (and occasionally good) company. It's all pretty fast paced and frantic but sadly rather one note, and despite the fact that the key characters are all women it still doesn't really pass the Bechdel test, and everyone is so ludicrous and over the top that it's hard to see it from a feminist perspective.

This is Trent Haga's second film - his first, 2011's Chop trod a similar path of comedy and violence, which is I suppose what you would expect from someone who cut his teeth on Troma movies both in front of and behind the camera. But 68 Kill outstays its welcome very quickly, and is neither as sexy as the advertising suggests nor as gory.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Your Name (Japan 2016: Dir Makoto Shinkai)

I will be the first admit that my knowledge of Anime is not huge - in fact, call me Mr. Pitiful - but that doesn't stop me from knowing a good thing when I see it. And Your Name is a very good thing indeed, a decidedly literary film which deals with some big concepts in its hour and three quarters; its combination of buzzy ideas and stunning visuals rightfully put it on many critics' 'best of'' lists in 2016, and it's now getting a welcome re-release in cinemas, including some IMAX showings.

Taki and Mitsuha are respectively a teenage boy and girl; he lives in Tokyo, while she resides in Itomori, a village in the country. Mitsuha, who with her sister has been brought up by her grandmother, is bored with rural life and also with being a girl - she shouts from the rooftops that she wants to be reborn as a boy in Tokyo! By some unexplained means both get to swap bodies, albeit briefly. After the swap they can remember little about their alternative lives, but take it in turns influencing each other's future. However, the approach of the Tiamat comet brings consequences for both Taki and Mitsuha that tests both their strange friendship and their hold on youth.

A quirky sort of love story which shifts its temporal perspective on several occasions, this is a film that is at the same time funny, sweet, bewildering, and heartbreaking. For anyone has seen the mawkish but odd 2006 US romance The Lake House (or even the 2000 South Korean film Il Mare of which the US movie was a remake), you'll have some idea of the mid film twist that takes things from mildly diverting to potentially tragic. The body swap theme is popular in Japanese literary culture - Shinkai based his film on sources as diverse as Shuzo Oshimi's body swap Manga Inside Mari and Torikaebaya Monogatari, a story from the ancient Japanese Heian period. With the arrival of the comet and in the film's last scenes there are also echoes of the disaster movie - it's a film that mixes the east and the west very satisfyingly.

Despite the timeless nature of the story, the characters of Taki and Mitsuha are superb creations - lively, enquiring, both amused and frightened at their experiences, but the supporting cast are also beautifully realised: Mitsuha's spunky younger sister Yotsuha, who in a running gag constantly catches Taki, while in her sister's body, fondling her/his own breasts; Hitoha, Mitsuha and Yotsuha's grandmother, who has brought them up on her own following their mother's death and local mayor father's abandonment, and is the custodian of the making of the kuchikami sake, an ancient family tradition; and also Taki and Mitsuha's schoolfriends Tsukasa, Shinta, Tessie and Sayaka, who help to flesh out the lives of the central characters and are a great supporting cast in their own right.

But the real hero of Your Name, as you would expect, is Shinkai's animation. A combination of stunningly realistic (and occasionally rotoscoped) backdrops which capture the bustling, anonymous cityscapes of Tokyo and the tranquility of Itomori (a fictitious area realised from a combination of Nagana, Gifu and, for the area where the comet hits land, Aogashima Island). Shinkai's use of the weather - scudding clouds, rain and snow - adds an extra dimension to these already vivid scenes. Like Ozu before him, Shinkai's frequent use of passing trains, whizzing through town and country, represents both the distance between the characters and the means of connecting them.

Onto this backdrop a fairly straightforward teen romance becomes increasingly complicated (you may want to see it with English language enabled, as I found the combination of a complex story, gorgeous visuals and subtitles at times overwhelming), raising questions about gender and culture which I wasn't expecting. Personally I could have done without Radwimps' (a popular Emo-lite Japanese band) rather generic - and overused - songs, feeling that this might unfairly date the movie in years to come. But this is a small criticism of a film which offers so much visually and narratively. See it on a big screen if you get the chance. Or failing that a very big television. Excellent.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Victim (UK 1961: Dir Basil Dearden) - notes from an introduction to a screening of the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse 15 August 2017

“It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.”

That was Dirk Bogarde writing about the film Victim in 1979. A further 38 years of ‘permissiveness’ in society has taken place since those words were written, which makes it very difficult today to appreciate just what a risky, brave and powerful film Victim was.

Two separate events were responsible for the film’s genesis and eventual release.

The first was the publication of the Wolfenden report, or to give it its proper title, The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution; published in 1957, the result of a three year long enquiry, its intention was to bring about the repeal of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made any homosexual acts between men illegal. It was an Act that was still being rigorously enforced by the Police in the 1950s, encouraged by overzealous politicians; between 1953 and 1954, for example, over two thousand men had been prosecuted and gaoled for offences under the Act. This meant that homosexuals, particularly high profile ones, were vulnerable to people aiming to make money out of their sexual orientation remaining secret. The Act therefore became known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’ and it was reported at one point that 90% of all blackmail cases that came to court involved the persecution of gay men – you’ll hear both of these facts mentioned in the film tonight.

The second event was the appointment of John Trevelyan as Secretary to the British Board of Film Censors in 1958. His tenure at the BBFC ushered in a more liberal approach to film censorship and, at a time when film makers would routinely have to submit their scripts to the Censors before any filming was done, a more collaborative style of working alongside the film making community. Importantly, Trevelyan’s view on films with direct homosexual themes, rather than being banned outright (which was the BBFC’s prior stance), was that they should be allowed for submission to the Censor provided that the subject matter was handled ‘responsibly.’

Victim’s director Basil Dearden was no stranger to controversy. His 1950 film Port of London contained the first interracial relationship in a British film. Eight years later he directed Violent Playground, whose subject matter was juvenile delinquency in Liverpool; and in 1959, along with Victim’s producer Michael Relph, he made Sapphire, a crime film with a largely black cast, its subject matter triggered by the 1958 Notting Hill riots.

Dearden’s scriptwriter on Sapphire was Janet Green, and it was Green who, with her husband John McCormick, came up with the story which would eventually be developed into Victim’s final script. It was inspired equally by the Wolfenden Report – or more particularly the fact that after its publication there was widespread debate but little legislative action – and the reality of the continued blackmailing of gay men; this became the core of the story, with successful QC Melville Farr (played by Dirk Bogarde) becoming embroiled in a blackmailing ring and risking both his career and exposure as a homosexual to take action against the blackmailers. The film started life under the name Boy Barrett, after the young clerk who is blackmailed over his association with Farr. It was changed to the more immediate one word title against Green’s wishes.

Dearden and Relph approached a number of actors for the lead role, including Jack Hawkins, Stewart Granger and James Mason, who for various reasons were unable to accept the part of the QC, originally designed to be an older character. Deciding to reduce Farr’s age and making him someone who has just made silk, they approached Dirk Bogarde. The actor – real name Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde  - was coming to the end of his contract with Rank, who had marketed him throughout the 1950s as the clean cut ‘idol of the Odeons,’ with some success. But Bogarde was keen to take on roles which moved him away from a youthful image – he was nearly 40, after all. So he jumped at the opportunity that Victim gave him, even though he knew that being included in the film carried enormous risks, which would probably lose him a lot of his fanbase. He may also have trusted Dearden after the director gave Dirk an early role as cop killer Tom Riley in the 1950 movie The Blue Lamp.

Bogarde threw himself into the part, preparing detailed character notes and contributing to the script – in fact, one of his criticisms was that Farr wasn’t homosexual enough; and he had a point; in Victim homosexuals are treated either as objects of pity or revulsion, but it's left to the supporting cast to personify any specific 'gayness.' Bogarde himself rewrote the key scene in which his wife Laura (a rather underdeveloped role for Sylvia Sims) confronts him about his relationship with Barrett, and it was this scene, with its doubly delivered "I WANTED him!" which gave Trevelyan as Censor one of his biggest headaches, even though it's disclosed that Farr didn't act on his desires.  

Shooting of Victim took ten weeks, starting in February 1961 with a budget of just over £150,000; it premiered in September 1961, with Trevelyan awarding it an X certificate with only minor dialogue trims, effectively over-ruling his colleagues on the Committee.

But Relph and Dearden were worried. Their previous movie, the rather clunky sci-fi comedy Man in the Moon starring Kenneth More, performed poorly both critically and at the box office. Also, the backlash received by Michael Powell following the release of his film Peeping Tom in 1960 showed exactly what could happen when film makers misread the mood of the critics and the viewing public.

But they needn’t have worried – press reaction overall was positive, and it did very well at the box office (making a profit of around £50,000, although only half that of Sapphire). Sadly it wasn’t welcomed with open arms in America. The MPAA insisted on the removal of the word ‘homosexual’ to guarantee a commercial release, but Dearden and Relph refused; so Victim was denied the MPAA Seal of Approval, killing any hope of commercial business, and was relegated to art house screenings only.

So the final question: did Victim achieve its aims, as Relph and Green hoped, to help the cause of the Wolfenden report? It’s difficult to say how much influence the movie had on the post Wolfenden debate, but it was the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’ and some of the script of the film sounds like it’s lifted direct from Wolfenden, so it’s reasonable to assume that it would have taken the issue to a much wider audience. What we do know is that, ten years after the publication of that report, in 1967 the Sexual Offences Bill was finally enacted, which provided that for men over 21 a homosexual act in private was no longer a criminal offence. It wasn’t an acceptance of homosexuality – far from it, police arrests continued after the Bill became law - but was at least a move in the right direction.

Enjoy the film.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (UK/France/Japan/USA 1998: Dir Jonathan Maybury) - notes from an introduction to a screening of the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse 27 June 2017

When Francis Bacon died in 1992, he was far from the archetype of the reclusive artist who dies in relative obscurity. The ‘towering giant in the wilderness of post war art’ (to slightly misquote Brian Sewell) had lived and loved in the public eye, whether in Soho’s drinking dens, public openings or numerous TV interviews. Bacon’s life was a classic fusion of the high and the low where art and the messy existence of living were inextricably linked.

It was therefore only a matter of time before someone would attempt to capture this life on film.

So when Jonathan Maybury, artist, friend of the art world and a film director who had cut his teeth on underground projects (including partnerships with Derek Jarman) stepped forward to take on the task, it sounded like the director was the ideal selection – Jarman, perhaps THE perfect choice to make the film, had sadly died in 1994.

Originally planned as a BBC production with support from the British Film Institute, LOVE IS THE DEVIL quickly expanded to a big screen project. And here the nerves set in, particularly on the part of the Arts Council for England, who had already agreed funding.

Why the nerves? Well in the six years since Bacon’s death at the age of 83, interest in the artist had grown immensely. He was the subject of three biographies, at least four major posthumous retrospectives and a host of smaller exhibitions. So the prospect of a filmed biography now had a lot riding on it - and this was to be Maybury’s first feature.

Added to this there were concerns that his music video CV (Maybury directed a number of seminal videos including Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’) might produce rather lightweight product. Worse, the original plan was to base the film on Daniel Farson’s 1994 biography of Bacon, which is infamous for its detailed anecdotes about Bacon’s hitherto undisclosed sexual preferences – although interestingly the book had only been bought to secure rights for the project. So fearing that Maybury would produce a glossy video style film concentrating on the seedier elements of the painter’s life, assistance from the Bacon estate was not forthcoming, and the Arts Council (whose then chair was Lord Gowrie, a friend of Bacon’s) withheld their proposed grant. The official line was that it was too soon for a Bacon biopic.

Maybury rejected the original script for the film, which he felt was too heavily reliant on the Farson biography, and decided to re-write it himself. The rewrite led funding bodies to rethink their original nervousness, and money was released from the Arts Council and the National Lottery, effectively green lighting the film, albeit with the removal of some of the more creative swearing to appease the Arts Council.

But in other quarters people remained unconvinced: the Bacon estate refused to participate, allowing none of the artist’s work to be used in the film; and David Sylvester, whose published interviews with Bacon are some of the most important writings on the artist, refused for any of his printed words to be used in the script and wanted nothing to do with it. 

Love is the Devil is set between 1963 when Bacon first met the 29 year old George Dyer and 1971 when Bacon’s lover died via an overdose of drugs and alcohol. The film is by no means an attempt to survey the artist’s entire life (indeed it doesn’t cover Bacon’s relationships before and after Dyer), but is instead an attempt to view the world through Bacon’s eyes, through the prism of his relationship with and loss of the thuggish Dyer, who functions both as lover and artistic subject.

Maybury creates a fractured world, full of mirror images, frightening visions, alcoholic gossip in Soho drinking dens, and Bacon’s abiding obsession with his art to the exclusion of all else. The director deliberately shoots in short vignettes, often filmed in long shot or from a height – he has described this approach as being like brushstrokes which, when collected together, produce the final picture. And indeed many scenes in the film are lit and photographed in an approximation of the subjects of Bacon’s absent paintings.

The enforced lack of Bacon’s art in the film is in my opinion a key to its success – it dispenses with the traditional art bio clichés of the creation of great works and is less distracting for it, allowing more room for the intensive and self-destructive relationship between artist and muse to take centre stage. A stark minimal score from Ryuichi Sakamoto adds greatly to the tension.

The performances here are everything. Derek Jacobi as Bacon is stunning. He was not Maybury’s first choice for the painter – that was Malcolm McDowell, who turned the role down – and while Jacobi occasionally looks uncannily like Bacon he is by his own admission not a mimic actor – therefore the Bacon he creates is both a mixture of the painter that we’ve seen in many TV interviews and Jacobi’s own interpretation. Bacon emerges as a manipulative, callous, passionate, highly intelligent and extremely funny man, who never made a secret of his being gay but also relished the secrecy of the scene, particularly in the years before homosexuality was partly decriminalised in 1967 via the Sexual Offences Act. As Maybury has pointed out. Love is the Devil is a ‘homosexual’ film rather than a ‘gay’ film.

Similarly Daniel Craig as George Dyer is a revelation in his first cinematic lead role – he was picked after impressing Maybury and producer Chiara Menage with his performance as Geordie Peacock in the 1996 BBC hit Our Friends in the North. With a minimum of dialogue and a hugely physical performance (a combination that he used with considerable success and a much bigger paypacket in his James Bond role) he is a man on the edge, hopelessly besotted with Bacon but seemingly unable to make eye contact with his lover.

Other actors to watch for are Tilda Swinton as The Colony Room’s founder Muriel Belcher, almost unrecognisable and heavily pregnant at the time of filming. There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance from Antony Cotton (aka Sean from Coronation Street) in his first big screen performance.

As a contribution to ‘Independent Queer Cinema’ Love is the Devil is important, in its presentation of non-heterosexual characters as unashamed outsiders from the rules of conventional society. But the film is more than that – it’s about passion, and passion for art. It’s also from Maybury’s perspective a triumph of ideas over budget, full of terrific creative touches, where necessity demands that a woozy drunken scene is best lensed through the base of a glass ashtray, and the roof of Islington Town Hall stands in for a New York hotel, complete with stars and stripes flag.

Enjoy the film.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A note from the author...

Hi readers. I'll be taking some downtime from DEoL for a while to concentrate on writing my first book, tentatively entitled 'Invasion Earth: A Popular History of the British Science Fiction Film.' It's been kicking around as a piece of research for a number of years and I promised myself this year to get it done. So that's what I'm doing, but it's a pretty big undertaking, as I'll be covering every UK SF movie from 1896 onwards.  

I'll still be contributing some reviews for the Bloody Flicks site (so make sure you bookmark that one) and if you're really, ahem, jonesing for my work, then there are still some copies of the book on the right to order over at Hemlock Books, in which I have a number of pieces.

I'm also contributing to the second volume of 'Unsung Horrors,' hopefully out by the end of the year, to be made available from the same publisher.

Have a great summer!


Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Poundland Lucky Dip Part 3 - Reviews of Haunted aka Bad Building (Canada 2013), Code Red (USA 2013), Demons aka Family Demons (Australia 2013), Evil Things (USA 2009), Salem Witch Hunters aka The Secret Village (USA 2013) and Halloween Haunting aka Hayride (USA 2012)

It's time for a round up of recent acquisitions from the shop which acts as my time machine to the golden days of VHS, when I'd pop into my local video emporium back in the early 1980s, choose some titles from the shelf in the 'six for £5' deal, then take them back home to find out what the devil I'd just rented. It goes without saying that these would all be horror movies, so now I can do the same in Poundland. Six films for six quid (one pound inflation over thirty five years ain't bad) - so what did I get, this time courtesy of Poundland Derby (I'm nothing if not well travelled)?

Haunted aka Bad Building (Canada 2013: Dir Philip Granger) Johnny Craig, host of a paranormal reality show, has been given one last chance by the TV station he works for to pull together an episode that actually features footage of a haunting, or face the chop. Luckily he's tipped off about Desmond Towers. an abandoned hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, with a dark past of murders, suicides and unexplained deaths on its premises. Via a couple of urban explorers Johnny and his team gain entry to the premises. It's not long before the supernatural activity kicks off, although their cameras repeatedly fail to record any of it. Soon they are trapped in the building as it starts to come to life and pick members of the team off one by one.

How relieved was I that this was not made in the 'found footage' format, despite its setup suggesting that this would be the case. Haunted (for once I concur with the distribution company's renaming of the film's terrible original title Bad Building for its 2015 home release) is actually very well photographed. The tortured history of the Desmond Towers reveals that successive owners had added to the original building, which explains why the floors look different when the team explore the hotel - although I suspect that this was really because Granger had to use several locations. The exterior shots are a sweet little bit of computer animation which could have been terrible had I not felt rather benevolently towards the film.

The cast - and there's a lot of 'em, many recruited from Vancouver's New Image college - are actually fairly competent if rather anonymous, and it's kind of difficult to keep track of who's alive and who's dead. A couple of them may need to lay off the biscuits if they want a career in film; the camera adds pounds, you know. There are some inventive and gory, if rather implausible kills as the hotel goes about its business - death by pigeon spikes anyone? - but the budget clearly dispenses with anything remotely ghostly, as the spirits on display are of the decidedly corporeal variety. But while I wouldn't go so far as to describe it, as one unnamed critic has, a 'rollercoaster,' this was a fun hour and a quarter, blessed with a very eerie soundtrack and some quirky touches. Best cast name - Havana Guppy!

Code Red (USA 2013: Dir Valeri Milev) Don't be fooled by the cover - there are one or two Nazi zombies in this film but only in the WW2 set prologue, where Stalin has apparently perfected a nerve gas which has the unique property of resurrecting those soldiers who have died after exposure to it. I'm guessing that the stormtrooper suit rental was charged by the day, because quick as you like we're in modern day Bulgaria (where Code Red was shot and where, one assumes, technical teams can be hired for peanuts) and it seems that supplies of the gas may have survived, pointed out courtesy of a recovered diary from the weapon's crazed inventor. Captain John McGahey (martial artist, stuntman and The Asylum flicks regular Paul Logan) is sent undercover by the US powers that be to find out what's been going on.

You won't be surprised to learn that the gas supplies get released, causing the whole of Bulgaria (well a run down housing estate in a tiny grimy part of it) to go zombie simple. Actually the zombie makeup is quite inventive, and the whole thing is filmed in that hyper real colour downgraded style beloved of directors who want to cover up their paltry budgets. By about the halfway mark Logan has become a kind of Steven Seagal lite action hero, and when the director wheels out the tanks and the hardcore armoury, the 'infected' have become a bit of an afterthought.

Competently directed but entirely lacking in charm, wit or purpose, this is about the worst travel ad for Bulgaria that I've ever seen. But I'm still worried that two films in, my Poundland haul is showing remarkable signs of...dare I mention it...quality?

Demons aka Family Demons (Australia 2013: Dir Ursula Dabrowsky) Clever old marketing companies - at it again. This is actually a 2009 slice of Ozploitation called Family Demons (although actually shot three years earlier), but they've dropped the first word of the title and put some woman with ragged hair on the cover - lead character Billie as it turns out - to make you think it's a horror movie. Well it is kind of a horror movie, and a pretty good one at that.

Billie lives at home with her crazed alcoholic mother, chained (literally) to the house. One day Billie makes a break for it in search of food (her mother spends all her money on booze and the occasional dress for when she picks up random guys) and meets neighbour Sean. In a struggle Billie's mother is hospitalised, but when she returns home, after a vicious argument, Billie kills her. But Billie's mother continues to haunt her daughter from beyond the grave...or are the apparitions just a figment of Billie's increasingly unhinged mind?

As you can probably tell laughs are few and far between in Demons. It's pretty much a two hander with great performances from Cassandra Kane as Billie and Kerry Reid as Mother. Cheaply made (just over $6,000 Australian) and shot entirely on location in Adelaide, it's let down by a very limited structure and a really cheap string synth score - I would have loved one of those soundtracks of noises and glitches with this one. Apparently well received on first release, winning a few awards at festivals, it's a shame that it's been repackaged this way. But it's worth seeing if downbeat domestic psycho dramas are your thing.

Evil Things (USA 2009: Dir Dominic Perez) A trip back to the previous decade, when 'found footage' was king. Yep, we have a fairly nondescript group of young New Yorkers off to stay in a country retreat upstate. On the way the would be party posse encounter a people carrier with blacked out windows that cuts them up, then slows down in front of them, and generally menaces the group. Arriving shaken at the destination, they find that the people carrier knows where they're staying, and its occupants may already have been in the house. After and run (while still holding the camera, obviously).

Anyone who has read my reviews will know that my critical faculties are severely reduced if a director uses an authentic snowy location. So yes, some of my bonhomie towards Evil Things can be attributed to the white stuff that makes the upstate New York woodland locations look rather beautiful. The other thing this movie has going for it is that the threat isn't supernatural. It isn't that scary either but the setup is believable (the premise is that these are tapes picked up by the police at the house following the disappearance of all of the group - nice of the cops from the precinct's music department to add some droning sounds when they assembled the footage).

The last twenty minutes or so is a total mess, but until then Evil Things does a reasonably good job of conjuring up a good foreboding atmosphere in a chilly setting. This was Dominic Perez's first film - his next, 2015's Saving Borshia, a comedy about the pitfalls of independent filmmaking (and six years between films suggests this is something the director knows a bit about), is streaming on Amazon Prime now and may be worth a look.

Salem Witch Hunters aka The Secret Village (USA 2013: Dir Swamy Kandan)  Swamy Kandan's directorial track record isn't that great. One previous movie - 2009's Catch Your Mind - which seems to have tanked. Kandan also produced and wrote that one, and takes on similar duties for the appalling Salem Witch Hunters (and by the way distribution company - the new title makes no sense whatsoever). The film is set in a small village in western Massachusetts (spelled incorrectly in the end credits, fact checkers), whose history includes frequent outbreaks of poisoning through ergot, a fungus found on crops.

Skinny saucer eyed Rachel, an investigative journalist, has moved into a friend's house in the area to find out more about the infections. Unbeknownst to her she's joined by heavy browed square jawed Greg, who has been booted out of his flat by his ex and needs somewhere to crash.

Greg forms a closeness to Rachel but she becomes increasingly concerned as her researches seem to show the involvement of a clan of people (possibly witches) and a strange building close by which may be keeping people prisoner. Greg has to leave for town and alone in the house Rachel is persecuted by the very people whose stories she is uncovering.

Kandan's decision to convey Rachel's increasingly fractured state of mind by increasingly fracturing the narrative construction of his film may have been a good idea on paper but needs great execution (Nic Roeg, Christopher Nolan, Quentin T take a bow) to pull it off. Salem Witch Hunters has tragically awful execution, a lumbering intrusive score (surprisingly by the normally reliable Robert The Slayer Folk) and a denouement that sets the eyes rolling in the sockets. Strangely you'd expect a movie of this calibre to be staffed by a cast of unknowns, but Greg is played by Jonathan (Mean Girls) Bennett and Rachel by Ali Faulkner, who was in one of the Twilight movies. I can only think that Kandan must have rich benefactors, for I feel that both actors will be replacing this entry on their CV with the words 'career break' any time now. Awful.

Halloween Haunting aka Hayride (USA 2012: Dir Terron R. Parsons) Apparently hayrides are a hallowe'en thing in the US. You and a group of friends sit on the back of a truck which is towed through fields, while various iconic characters leap out from time to time and scare you - a sort of rustic ghost train. Terrifying, right? Well I can tell you something - Hayride is not a scary title for a film. Halloween Haunting is better, but no haunting takes place in this movie - only someone having a slash. Ahem.

We get terrible 'teen' acting by people who have long since forgotten their teenage years. We get the legend of Pitchfork, who stalks the countryside looking for his lost daughter. We get an escaped serial killer who assumes the role of Pitchfork as a disguise by nicking the costume intended to scare the kids on the Haunted Hayride. We also gets lots of walking around and talking, CGI rain and blood spatters, and people dying very anaemically. So anaemically in fact that it felt like watching a good old VHS copy of a 1980s slasher flick after the BBFC got hold of it.

Director Terron R. Parsons went on to make Hayride 2 which by all accounts rehashes many scenes from the first movie and proves that the director has learned nothing from the mistakes of his first feature. All very very tedious.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Shining (USA/UK 1980: Dir Stanley Kubrick) - notes from an introduction to a screening at East Dulwich Picturehouse 21 May 2017

When Jack Nicholson was approached by director Stanley Kubrick for The Shining, the actor had just completed shooting the comedy western Goin' South, which he both directed and starred in. Filmed in 1977 and released the following year, it was, to use that old phrase, a ‘troubled production’ which received a critical mauling. A New York Times reporter, who made an on set visit, found Nicholson in a morose and misanthropic mood: possibly, one person suggested, the now 40 year old actor was finding it hard to balance his on set duties by day and his night time partying antics. Pauline Kael subsequently referred to Nicholson’s performance in the film as a ‘leering leprechaun’ who ‘talks as if he needed to blow his nose.” To what could she have been referring?

In Jack’s private life the production of Goin' South coincided with the truth about his parentage being made public – that June Nicholson, who he had always believed was his sister, was actually his mother. So in many ways it wasn’t a great time for him.

Kubrick had known Nicholson for many years and they had talked about working together since Jack’s Easy Rider days – in fact, a potential historical epic had been talked about, with Jack playing the part of Napoleon - this came to nothing, however.

Although Nicholson was Kubrick’s first choice for The Shining’s lead role of the caretaker, Jack Torrance, other actors were also tested, including Robert de Niro, Harrison Ford and Robin Williams.

Kubrick needed to make a movie with decent box office returns after the dismal failure of his previous film Barry Lyndon in 1975. Kubrick probably thought that a horror film would guarantee him a hit. According to one source he amassed a load of books in that genre, which he then shut himself away to read. He could be heard noisily discarding all of the books after a few pages, throwing them against a wall, before things quietened down after he picked up Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ which had been published in 1977. Of course Kubrick wasn’t interested in making a horror film per se – he’d already been offered and rejected director duties on The Exorcist and The Exorcist II - The Heretic – but the plot of the novel, about a writer with creative block who takes on the job of caretaker in a closed for the season – and haunted - mountain hotel, and the strange psychic power of his son Danny, afforded him lots of opportunities to make a horror movie with a difference. It also appealed to his interests in ESP and the paranormal.

The Shining went into production in the winter of 1978, at the same time that Goin' South was tanking at movie theatres. The long shot exteriors of the Overlook Hotel, where the action takes place, were filmed at an actual hotel in Oregon, but the close up exteriors and all the interiors were shot on meticulously designed and constructed sets at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. The vast spaces of the hotel are navigated in breathtaking style by Garrett Brown’s revolutionary Steadicam set up.

Even people with only a slight knowledge of Stanley Kubrick will know of his legendary habit of multiple shot takes. The Shining was no exception. One scene, between Scatman Crothers playing Hallorann, and Danny Lloyd as Torrance’s son Danny, went to 148 takes and was only stopped when Crothers broke down and Nicholson intervened. 

As a result of this, the shooting timetable went way over schedule, turning from a 17 week shoot into a 46 week one. Two major films scheduled to start at Elstree, Warren Beatty’s Reds and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, were cued up but massively delayed. Matters became more complicated when most of the The Shining’s sets were destroyed in a studio fire in February 1979, before filming had completed. The final scenes were finished as in an adjacent studio The Empire Strikes Back was going into production.

Because of the extended shooting schedule – the length of which caused Nicholson to comment at one point that both he and Shelley Duvall, who plays Jack’s wife Wendy, wore the same costumes every day for a year – Jack ended up taking a rental house in Chelsea. Nicholson made himself pretty comfortable and by all accounts the house became party central. Jack was filming during the day, partying at night and fitting sleep in during the the car rides ferrying him from London to Elstree. Interestingly much of the film was shot in order – unusual in film making – and towards the end it was commented that Nicholson needed less and less makeup to turn him into the possessed, manic Jack Torrance.

The Shining met with a lot of critical hostility when it opened during the summer of 1980. It was also seen as too long - the original film ran to 144 minutes, but Kubrick reduced this to 118 for audiences outside the US – it’s this print that you’ll see this afternoon.

I saw it when it first came out and like a lot of people was impressed with the look of the film, but couldn’t get past Jack’s performance and also the fact that Kubrick had used King’s book - which was a favourite of mine - as a jumping off point to make his own rather idiosyncratic version of the story.  But like most of Kubrick’s films, it took a few re viewings of the film for its genius to sink in.

James Joyce once commented of his famous novel ‘Ulysses’ that there were enough traps and tricks in that book to keep critics guessing for years. And the same can be said for The Shining. Doing some research for this introduction I was amazed at the sheer volume of analysis – a lot of it quite bonkers – produced in reaction to the movie. Some of these theories were collected together in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film Room 237, a conspiracy theory style documentary almost as extraordinary as the film that inspired it. And yet there are so many inconsistencies in the film, which add credence to some of these theories, and which surely could not have happened by accident with a director as scrupulous as Kubrick.

So whether it’s your first time or your twentieth viewing of the film, you’ll still find a lot to interest you. You may even have your own theories about what happens in the film, but I’d think carefully before committing them to the internet.

Enjoy the film.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

War of Words: Battle Rap in the UK (UK 2016: Dir Tom Worth and Craig Tuohy)

Like many people over the age of, ahem, 40 - well ok 50 - my experience and understanding of the battle rap scene (a fast, furious and frequently very funny offshoot of the more mainstream rap genre) has been limited to Eminem, the 2002 'rap odyssey' 8 Mile, and the mainstreaming of Professor Green, whose put downs and character assassinations, an important part of this movement, have successfully transitioned into his successful music career.

Worth and Tuohy's documentary on the UK battle rap scene was five years in the making, but with its intensity and (pardon the borrowing of the word) flow feels like it could have been put together in 48 hours - that's not a criticism - and its hour and a bit running time passes in a flash.

Part of the reason that the battle rap scene has remained underground, if far from un-noticed - just witness the crowds at the events on screen - is that the average content of the rappers' battles is so eye poppingly obscene that it wouldn't stand a chance of being shown on any mainstream media - not that they need it, their lives being filmed and broadcast almost entirely via social media.

War of Words expertly captures the rawness of the verbal attacks and the non violent, peace keeping culture that underpins their outbursts - as one describes it, they're like boxers in the ring who forget their differences once offstage. The timescale of the documentary demonstrates the scene's transition from a freestyle approach to a more rehearsed rapping style, without sacrificing the shock of the rhymes but allowing a wider and more diverse group of people to participate.

Apart from the live footage, War of Words is brilliant in its portrayal of the almost Hogarthian rapper population, with great names like Lunar C (comedy gold), Stig of the Dump and Eurgh, all competing for centre stage in a relentless display of braggadocio. But the film also takes some time to concentrate on decidedly ordinary rappers Marlo and Shuffle T who - as the film's publicity states - look more like internet nerds than tough hip-hop guys, as they prepare for battle against Detroit legends MarvWon and Quest MCODY. Unlike the smooth and perhaps more fluent US exponents of the scene, the UK rappers use rhymes less cliched, funnier (and sarcastic) with a rough round the edges approach that makes the contrasting styles fascinating viewing.

I admit it, I'm old enough to have lived through punk rock, and watching Tom and Craig's footage - expertly dividing itself between the battles and the personalities behind the mouths - is pretty similar to punk gigs of 1977; profoundly DIY, alienating to outsiders, but to those involved providing a close knit community of people sharing something very difficult to understand and appreciate from an outsider perspective.

Go see it.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Frighteners (UK 1972 - London Weekend Television - various directors)

The oft quoted L.P. Hartley line 'the past is another country; they do things different there' may be overused, but is entirely apposite when trying to write about TV drama from the late 1960s/early 1970s. Network's release of the previously difficult to see London Weekend Television 1972 series The Frighteners is an extraordinary collection of thirteen half hour plays, where even the most straightforward example is quite unlike anything you'd see on TV in the 21st century.

Although each of the stories was written by different people, The Frighteners credits John Burke as script advisor. Outside of fan circles Burke, who died in 2011, was a relatively unknown but very influential figure in 'weird' television, a prolific author who wrote in the horror, science fiction and thriller genres under a host of aliases. He contributed to a number of similarly themed anthologies both on BBC and ITV including Late Night Horror (1968) and Tales of Unease (1970). Only fragments of these have so far surfaced, but based on the the emergence of The Frighteners I remain hopeful.

While the series name and opening titles suggest something more directly scary, the 'frights' in The Frighteners are subtle but sinister - in this the series has something in common with the ITV series Shadows of Fear dating from the same period - clearly something in the scriptwriting water at the time. But the setups, mainly focusing on tense 'two hander' exchanges between captor and captive or aggressor and victim, are strange indeed, and viewed back to back, have a cumulatively disturbing effect.

Series highlights include: the Mike (Get Carter) Hodges directed 'The Manipulators' in which a couple in a flat and a room full of people being tested for typing skills are observed for undisclosed reasons; Brian Phelan's 'The Disappearing Man' where a lonely commuter is convinced he's actually disappearing from the world; 'Bed and Breakfast' featuring a typically wobbly performance from Ian Hendry as a man who with his wife takes the phrase "you treat this house like a hotel" rather literally by forcing themselves into the home of a stranger and proceeding to do just that; and 'You Remind Me of Someone' where a lorry driver picks up a hitchhiker with a potentially sinister purpose.

The Frighteners is out now in a 2-disc set from Network Releasing.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Lady Macbeth (UK 2016: Dir William Oldroyd)

Katherine has has been sold into marriage with Alexander, a wealthy mine owner with an impressive country address, although the union has not been consummated - he seems unable to make love to her, and their consequent lack of a child causes displeasure with Boris, Alexander's father, who also lives with them. The real reason why Katherine has been 'procured' for Alexander will be disclosed later in the film.

With Boris away for long periods of time and only her maid Anna for (virtually mute) company, Katherine's life is a routine of dressing in finery and wandering the austere rooms of the country house. She enters into a profoundly physical relationship with Sebastian, a groom, after seeing he and others setting upon a naked Anna in the estate's outbuildings. The affair triggers a sense of opportunity and confidence in Alexander's wife, although Boris attempts to control Katherine's new found sense of freedom. This struggle will set in motion a chain of tragic and ruthless acts in which she attempts to assume control of the household and her own destiny.

Based on 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,' an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov, William Oldroyd transposes the events from Russia to the Northumberland of the 19th century and, via Alice Birch's minimal script, reduces the complexity of the original text, keeping the story relatively simple, and setting the events in sedate country surroundings (actually Lambton Castle in County Durham).

Central to the film's success is Florence Pugh as Katherine. Much has been made of this being a pivotal role for the young actor (who had previously starred in the otherwise rather underwhelming 2014 film The Falling). Pugh's impassive face, barely masking the ruthlessness and icy determination of the young woman within, is mirrored in the constricting clothes she wears, her lust imprisoned in crinoline and whalebone corsets. It's an extremely impressive performance but one that somehow becomes less convincing as events in the film become more extreme. The small details are where the power is to be found; a scene where she privately tries on her mask of grief is very effective, as are recurring shots of Katherine sitting calmly, perfectly posed with her formal dress spread put on her seat, with just a few stray wisps of hair as the only outward indication of what rages within.

The cast surrounding Pugh are also very effective: relative newcomers Cosmo Jarvis and Naomi Ackie underplay well as rough round the edges Sebastian and downtrodden maid Anna; and Christopher Fairbank's turn as Boris is a brilliant portrayal of anger and disappointment.

Although clearly filmed on a budget (less than £500,000 apparently) the film makes the best of its surroundings, only occasionally feeling like costumed actors in a National Trust house. The film's look almost expects the addition of a lavish score - so inured are we to the conventions of TV costume drama (ironically then this film is part funded by the BBC), but the director wisely avoids this in favour of an almost entirely natural soundtrack where the noises of living (and loving) fill the space.

William Oldroyd has delivered a very impressive debut feature. Maybe his training in theatre makes the mannered first half of the film just too big a contrast with the 'revenge tragedy' events of the second - this sometimes feel likes Madame Bovary crossed with the 1970s rural love and drama TV series Country Matters. But it's gripping stuff watching the transformation of Katherine from bought wife to mistress in control, and the price she'll pay for her status.

The Demonic Tapes (UK 2017: Dir Richard Mansfield)

You're never that far from the gothic or the classic ghost tale with Richard Mansfield's work, whether he's giving us faithful adaptations of M R James stories via his shadow films, or contemporary live action movies containing more than a whiff of classic supernatural fiction.

In 2016's Video Killer urban paranoia loomed large among strange visions and spectral followers. The rather luridly titled The Demonic Tapes - a title which perhaps unfairly masks a much more subtle film than that - is also set in contemporary London, and was filmed very quickly over a three day period on a budget of about £400.

The Demonic Tapes is the supposedly true story of an unnamed man, staying alone in a north London house share in the days leading up to Christmas, who discovers a box of audio cassettes in the basement. These tapes record a series of sessions involving a medium and a former resident of the house. Our current resident listens to the tapes increasingly obsessively, and realises fairly quickly that the haunting documented on them - and the death of the medium on the tapes - has taken place in the same house in which he's currently living. As the cassettes' hold on him deepens, he starts to see and hear things in the rooms upstairs, suggesting that the demonic presence caught on tape may be back in the house.

A nightmarish image from The Demonic Tapes
Perhaps befitting the brief shooting time The Demonic Tapes didn't have quite the same impact that the more ambitious Video Killer had when I first saw it. But I have to congratulate Richard Mansfield on conjuring something interesting out of not much at all; whether it's tricksy camera shots - from within a kettle and bath while being filled, for example (very giallo) - or the use of the crumpled animated bedsheet twitching on the floor or rising slowly from bathwater (a nod to the BBC version of the M R James story Whistle and I'll Come To You). And the pre Christmas time setting (announced in a series of title cards) is surely a reference to the classic 1973 film The Legend of Hell House which uses the same device.

"I feel like I'm listening to something I shouldn't be" says our doomed hero at one point (carefully underplayed by Darren Munn), and there's a palpable sense of unease generated by watching the man passively listening to the recording of a sustained haunting (complete with Ghostwatch style disturbing voices). Although largely unseen Alice Keedwell is also convincing as the voice of the medium on the tapes - she also plays her sister Sarah in a brief scene. Aided by an extremely atmospheric soundtrack by the enigmatically titled 'Pig 7' - with help from Mansfield and former Video Killer actor Victoria Falls - The Demonic Tapes creates what is becoming a trademark urban horror feel from the director, but with the 'onion skin' approach to storytelling adopted by M R James, to whom Mansfield remains indebted.

The Demonic Tapes is available to stream on Amazon Prime now.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Train to Busan (South Korea 2016: Dir Yeon Sang-ho) - notes from an introduction to the screening at Herne Hill Free Film Festival - 8 May 2017

South Korean Yeon Sang-ho, the director of tonight’s film Train to Busan, is one of the brightest hopes in eastern film making at the moment.

Born in Seoul in 1978, Yeon’s background is in animation. The stories behind his early films were written in notebooks while he was doing his military service, a difficult time for him, which included a spell in prison: these experiences fed into his first feature length animated movie, 2011’s King of Pigs, which dealt with the themes of bullying and poverty. In the following year he made an award winning short film, The Window, depicting violence in the military, and in 2013 his continuing political disillusionment inspired his next feature The Fake, about a cult religious leader who swindles a community out of compensation money paid to them because their village is to be submerged. Not for nothing did one critic describe these films as being “full of poignant stories targeted at the very heart of society.”

In 2015 the director developed a (sort of) prequel to tonight's film, Seoul Station (although confusingly this was released after Train to Busan). Asked for his inspiration Yeon said recently “...for a long time I have been wanting to depict society’s collective rage, and Seoul Station is the film where I can discuss it… I don’t think there is a specific moment or target for the people’s rage. Rather, it is more like a monolithic rage against big entities such as the nation.” The rage he’s referring to concerns the large numbers of homeless people who live in and around the station, who have become almost invisible to the rest of the city’s inhabitants – in the film it is within this group that the zombie infestation breeds. But don't worry - you don’t need to have seen Seoul Station to watch tonight's film, which is set set one day after the prequel ends.

Train to Busan, working title Busan Bound, is Yeon’s first live action movie.  Why move into live action after a career in animated films? Well it comes down to money really – the film has taken over $130 million at the box office, whereas his last two animated features took just a fraction of that – about $280,000.

This being the first Korean zombie movie, the director has cited mainly western movies as influences on the film, including the claustrophobic actioners of Paul Greengrass like United 93 (2006) and Captain Phillips (2013) and also ‘community under threat’ films such as Frank Darabont’s 2007 movie The Mist and John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009).

An overlooked influence is the disaster movie: Train to Busan is the arguably the world’s first zombie example of this – and why not? The genre lends itself to borrowing from others - we’ve had the zombie romance movie, zombie comedies, the zombie war film, and even zombie animals attack films (most recently in 2016’s Zoombies, about a virus that spreads through a safari park). Train to Busan uses the clichés of the disaster movie to tell the story: there’s the usual brief thumbnail setup to establish the key players; the ‘must-survive-at-any-cost’ businessman who’ll step on anyone to stay alive; the flawed but basically decent hero realising his inner humanity while struggling with a messy divorce; emotional final reel. They’re all present and correct, and of course what could be a better setting than a speeding train?

Yeon’s animation training shows on screen - he stages the action really well, filling the screen with incident, and many of his wide shots of city devastation look stunning. The zombies in the movie were choreographed by Park Ja-In (who also worked on the 2016 Korean movie The Wailing), but put aside all thoughts of Michael Peters helping Michael Jackson go through his moves in the ‘Thriller’ video - Ja-In choreographed about 20 to 30 actors at a time in her studio, where she designed all the stunning movement you’ll see in the movie.

Yeon is at heart a political film maker - this was more obviously to the fore in Seoul Station, but Train to Busan also shows its colours, albeit more subtly, in the class tensions on board the train and the inability of the government to deal with the developing crisis (and indeed to to be honest about their incompetence). Yeon recognises that Korean audiences expect to see realism in their films, together with humour and big set pieces. He achieves this brilliantly but never at the expense of his characterisations - the New York Times called the film “a public-transportation horror movie with a side helping of class warfare.” 

Train to Busan has been a massive success in Korea – the fifth highest grossing film in the country’s movie production history, taking nearly $135 million at the box office, playing to over 10 million moviegoers in Korea alone. Fans have been clamouring for a sequel which now looks like happening (working title Train to Busan 2), and the inevitable Hollywood remake has also been green lit with French company Gaumont sealing the deal. 

But will the director be back on board (pun very much intended)? Last month Yeon announced the production of a film called Psychokinesis, a dark comedy about an ordinary man who accidentally obtains superpowers and uses them to help his daughter and others around them, scheduled for release in 2018. After watching tonight's film I hope like me that you'll be very interested in any future project by this inspiring film maker.

Enjoy the film.

Monday, 1 May 2017

New Films Round Up #9: Reviews of Don't Kill It (USA 2016), Don't Knock Twice (UK 2016), The Void (Canada 2016), Shadow People (USA 2017), Asylum of Darkness (USA 2017), and The Bye Bye Man (USA 2017)

Don't Kill It (USA 2016: Dir Mike Mendez) I'm going to admit that the films of Dolph Lundgren have managed to pass by my film viewing, er, career - and I'm happy to have let that happen. So how am I ending up watching nigh on sexagenarian Dolph after a lifetime of avoidance? Because he's in a film about a shape shifting demon, that's why. Old Hans (for that is his real name) plays Jebediah Woodley, a demon hunter that's a cross between Crocodile Dundee and, well, Dolph really. Woodley turns up in the small town of Chickory Creek, Mississippi, where a spate of random murders have been taking place. And the twist is that all of the murderers and their victims are connected by association - it's almost as if someone...or moving between them causing the mayhem.

Don't Kill It is an almost sensationally violent film. I'm not easily shocked but the body count (and parts) in the first five minutes was probably higher than most films I've seen this year put together. Into this rather campily arranged carnage wades Dolph, introduced to the viewing audience via the good old 'deal-with-the-sex-pest-hitting-on-the-woman-in-the-bar' routine, then taking said woman - a lady of the evening - home, having his wicked way with her then almost refusing to pay her. What a rotter - although he vapes rather than smokes, presumably to show his sensitive side. Lundgren then smile/snarls his way through the rest of the movie, getting to the truth behind the killings quicker than the rest of the state police force. The truth is of course a riff on the old The Thing story - or more accurately the 1987 movie The Hidden - with an ancient demon replacing the alien.

So we have a demon who inhabits bodies, makes the hosts scream a lot, develop jet black eyes (when the FX team can remember to apply the CGI) and murder, murder, murder. At only an hour and a quarter Don't Kill It is terrific fun and although I've nothing to compare it with Dolph is clearly having a whale of a time - although I sense that, like William Shatner in the last pre-reboot Star Trek movies, his extended running days may be over. Exploitation regular Kristina Klebe, as his FBI partner in crime-solving Agent Evelyn Pierce, is clearly no stranger to the treadmill though, and makes up for Hans's fear of the fall by doing enough of her own stunts to help us forget when Mr L sits it out. Huge fun if dumb as a box of something very stupid indeed.

Don't Knock Twice (UK 2016: Dir Caradog James) For our second movie we're back in 1980s genre reboot territory again, although quite what persuaded Mr James to dust off the old Candyman template - demon summoned by knocking twice on the front door of a spooky house in defiance of local legend - I'm not sure; however, despite the technical skill with which he executes the movie, it wasn't a wise decision (see The Bye Bye Man review below to show you how the same theme can be better developed)..

Katee Sakhoff, no stranger to exploitation fare but still bringing more class to the table than the movie deserves, plays Jess, a sculptress with an addictive past who is keen to re-connect with her daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton) from whom she has become estranged. Chloe has a dark past of her own, and there's oodles of back story which pours out of the script and dilutes from the reasonably interesting dysfunctional parent and child reunion through supernatural adversity theme, which has been used an awful lot recently (Under the Shadow, The Babadook etc).

This is a shame as there are some fine set pieces in Don't Knock Twice. The demon is brilliantly realised (having ancient origins via Baba Yaga woodcuts is a nice touch) and the whole look of the movie is decidedly sinister. But any tension generated by individual scenes is is lost in the sheer weight of exposition. Honestly, it's ok for some things to remain unresolved, particularly if your ending is less than tidy. Pity.

The Void (Canada 2016: Dir Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski) This film has been widely trumpeted as eschewing CGI in favour of good old latex effects and karo syrup. And while this is true, the fact that the FX have achieved advance notice top billing is something to do with there not being an awful lot else to congratulate the directors for apart from some rather icky modelling.

The Void has an interesting if hardly original setup: a group of hospital staff go about their business in a facility which is in the process of being closed down (giving the movie the atmosphere of some of John Carpenter's most claustrophobic work, like Assault on Precinct 13). Into their midst comes an agitated man and, later, two people who have been hunting him - it's not long before the dead don't stay dead and the basement's full of tentacles.

Sadly there are too many plot elements that don't really come together - like the white robed sentinels on hand throughout the movie, and the strange, mystic ending which comes in from absolutely nowhere - which reminded me of a whole load of other films, rather distracting me from the one I was watching. This film is, like it or not, all about the effects, but the creatures on display, impressive though they are, only served to evoke memories of Hellraiser, From Beyond, er The Beyond, and many others from the most recent golden age of the monster movie. Like some of The Void's predecessors from that time, the film kind of stops for the set pieces and then picks up again, rendering it an FX show reel with a (baffling) story attached. Ultimately it all runs out of steam, and while The Void aims high within its clearly minimal budget, it's just a bit too all over the place to satisfy.

The Shadow People (USA 2017: Dir Bryan T. James)  Holy moley, what do we have here? There's about twenty movies out there using the title The Shadow People, and this, folks...well this is one of them.

So we have a young couple, Andrew and Megan. He's a successful writer and she's an artist (not specified but definitely struggling) who are relocating out into the country. On the way there, driving at night in the pouring rain (actually pouring - a particularly useless bit of FX work) Alex swerves to avoid a figure in the road and their car spins off the highway. The couple are unharmed, and make their way on foot to their country retreat. Thereafter things start to get a bit strange - shadowy figures appear to Megan. Alex starts to bleed from the nose. What's going on? Actually it's pretty flipping obvious.

Apart from the shadowy wraiths who pop up from time to time, this is basically a two hander - which might in itself set off some alarm bells. The reality is that the two actors playing the couple - the impressively named Bug Hall and Kat Steffens - are no great shakes, and an hour and twenty minutes in their company is almost more than the human frame can stand. Add in some really inappropriate soundtrack music and the constant rain which does not let up for the whole film - again, a bit of a clue - and the result is really quite poor. The denouement - which of course my blog policy forbids me to share - is one of those that invites you to look back and re-appraise everything that's happened. Believe me, if you do watch The Shadow People, don't do this - it'll just make you more annoyed.

Asylum of Darkness (USA 2017: Dir Jay Woelfel)  Dwight Stroud is a patient at a psychiatric facility who's under constant assessment for his own particular psychosis. He wants to be well enough to leave hospital, but is clearly rather round the bend. Stroud does eventually manage to escape, trading identities with a writer called Artemis Finch via a car crash, with whom he also seems to swap personalities, even down to living in Finch's house and passing himself off as the real thing with Finch's wife (scream queen Tiffany Shepis), who can't believe the transformation from the real Finch, who was clearly a misanthropic sort.

But just as Stroud is settling down to enjoy his new life, figures from the past intrude to remind him of his new identity. Can Stroud find peace in his new body, or will he be forced to reconcile himself with his original form to rid himself of the demons that continue to haunt him?

The packaging of this film suggests, rather than the ruminative mind flip that Woelfel offers, a rather more straightforward spookfest. It would also seem (although I might be wrong) that the film is a repackaging of the director's earlier offering, 2012's Season of Darkness, which remained unreleased. Four years is a long time for a film to be languishing on the shelf...except in this case. It's a valiant attempt at something different, but its random editing, presumably intentional to serve the 'dissociative' nature of the movie. coupled with a somnambualatory performance by Nick Baldasare as our lunatic hero and a near two hour running length make this one a no no. Add in a deafening soundtrack cobbled together from what must be the director's top 10 classical pieces (you'll never want to hear Saint Saens again, believe me) and you have un grande dinde of a film on your hands. Different does not always mean good, unless it's good in its own right.

The Bye Bye Man (USA 2016: Dir Stacy Title) I'd heard discouraging things about this movie, based on its very restricted UK cinema release and its supposedly derivative Candyman style storyline. Also on a personal note director Title's first movie was 1995's The Last Supper, one of the very few films that have caused me to walk out of a cinema half way through the film. So things didn't augur well for this.

Which makes it rather refreshing that The Bye Bye Man has a lot going for it. Adapted from a supposedly true story of an urban legend (if that's not an oxymoron) 'The Bridge to Body Island', it's the story of three students, Elliot, Sasha and their best friend Colin, who rent an out of the way house in Wisconsin, only to find that it's been the site of multiple murders back in the late 1960s (disclosed in the movie's prologue). Uncovering the scratched words 'The Bye Bye Man' and a sheet of paper on which the phrase 'don't think it, don't say it' is endlessly scrawled, it isn't long before the three learn that to say the words 'The Bye Bye Man' summons a hooded creature - together with devilish hound - who wants nothing more than the soul and bodies of its victims. Through some assiduous research in the local record office the history of 'The Bye Bye Man' is revealed and the three students must find away to defeat the supernatural entity they have unwittingly summoned.

To be fair to the critics, there's seemingly little to differentiate The Bye Bye Man from the dozens of PG-13 horror lite films clogging up the world's movie streaming channels. But on closer inspection Title's movie does offer something rather more intense than the average. The flashbacks to 1969, so often a throwaway element of a movie like this, are well structured and intrinsic to the plot. This is also a lot nastier than many of its competitors - without giving the plot away, there is only one sure fire way to escape from the hooded terror, and it doesn't offer a happy ending. The central characters of the three students, while not necessarily fully fleshed out, are at least more interesting than the usual demon fodder, and the breakdown of their friendship over the course of the film offers a kind of offbeat boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl  setup. So yes, I'd cautiously recommend this, if approached with the right adjustment of expectations.  

Monday, 17 April 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm (UK 2017: Dir Tom Lee Rutter)

Here's an enigmatic treat, a half hour mix of myth and history written, edited, photographed, produced and directed by idiosyncratic film maker Tom Lee Rutter, who has an interesting CV of unusual titles, although often difficult to see.

Rutter's latest project draws on regional English history. In 1943 four young boys, poaching in the woods near the village of Hagley in the West Midlands, stumble across a skeleton stuffed into the hollow trunk of a tree. The boys initially remain silent about their discovery but when one of the four dies, irreversibly traumatised by the find, the police become involved.

The discovery is highlighted by mysterious wording which appears on the side of the nearby Wychbury Obelisk, a monument close to the site where the remains were found, which reads "Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?" (apparently this wording remained for many years, as a reminder to local residents of the need to establish the truth behind the identity of 'Bella').

And it is this image which opens the film: as we view the obelisk's graffito (recreated for the film), the image masked by overlaid clouds and other shots of the surrounding countryside, a young girl narrates a poem, written by Craigus Barry, which speaks enigmatically of secrets, concluding with the words "Who am I?"

It's an incredibly impressive and strange opening to an odd but beguiling film. By his own admission Rutter's cinematic style has been heavily influenced by the occluded film making of Guy Maddin, although I was also reminded of Andrew Kotting's 2015 meditation on landscape and the poet John Clare By Our Selves. But while Maddin's work rarely strays from fiction (and often remains baffllingly opaque), Rutter never lets the visuals get in the way of the story. The combination of historical fact and the search both for the identity of the body and the reason for Bella's death, which range from the supernatural  (witchcraft) to a more prosaic but equally odd explanation of wartime spying and a Hollywood legend, keep the film strange if grounded.
Rutter's 'hauntological' approach to the work - Bella in the Wych Elm contains snippets of old music, historical artefacts, field recordings and snapshots of the West Midlands landscape - presents a film where the elements gently collide, or more precisely merge. This is a perfect backdop over which to tell the story, and the effective use of local characters for narration ('Tatty' Dave Jones's Birmingham brogue is mesmerising) work well with the rich script. Also worth mentioning is the fine soundtrack music, by the enigmatically named The Worrisome Ankletrout (the nom de plume of local musician John-Joe Murray), a gorgeous and unsettling mix of folk and arcane sounds, perfectly underscoring the story.

Rutter has made a well-researched film that is distinctly folkloric, allusive and troubling. It's also one which successfully captures a sense of English place and history which is arcane rather than nostalgic. The short length of the piece is deceptive - there's more content in Bella in the Wych Elm's 36 minutes than most feature length films I've seen this year. A triumph.