Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ring (1998)

I can never pick an all-time favourite horror movie. There are just too many great choices to pick from the last hundred years or so. But my favourite horror movie of the last 20 years is Ring. There's no serious competition. It revitalized a then-moribund genre and its climax was, in the context of the movie, as frightening as anything I've ever seen in a movie. It did this while being low-key, being set in an identifiable and real-world setting, and without resorting to shock tactics. It presents believable, sensible adult characters and puts them into a terrifying situation from which it seems impossible to escape. It drew on themes and ideas from folklore and urban legend without being cliché, and it created a simple yet iconic horror character whose mere appearance still gives me chills.

There are going to be plenty of spoilers in this entry. Although I doubt that there are many horror fans unfamiliar with Ring by now, you should be warned that I'm going to give away the ending of the story right after this paragraph. I'd rather not spoil if for you if I can avoid it, so if you haven't seen Ring or its inferior Hollywood remake I'd suggest that you stop reading now.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Hamiltons (2006)

A young American family, The Hamiltons, find themselves adrift after their parents die. The eldest son David tries to fulfil the role of the father, but the twins Wendell and Darlene continually rebel against all his attempts to establish authority and the teenage son Francis, who narrates the movie, feels that he doesn't belong at all. Meanwhile, they are kidnapping people and chaining them up in the basement, where they also keep something fierce that they refer to only as Lenny locked in a box.

I like it when horror movies cross genres or subgenres, when they pull the rug out from under the audience with a mid-movie surprise and when they make an effort to create interesting characters and put them at the heart of the story. The Hamiltons does all of these things, and I applaud the filmmakers for attempting to do something different within the genre. Unfortunately it does all of these things badly, so I can't really recommend it.

 Spoilers ahoy from this point.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kill List (2011)

Jay is young father who has been off work for a while and is reluctant to get back. Under pressure from his wife Shel and his best friend Gal, he takes on a new assignment that will pay well and won't take him away from his family for long. As Jay and Gal get into the work, unexpected complications arise that cause them to question what they have gotten themselves into. Unable to withdraw from the job, the two men start to realise that they're at the centre of something very sinister, and they that have no idea of the rules or even of which game they are playing.

Kill List has an interesting structure in that it successfully switches genre for each third of the movie. If you went in knowing absolutely nothing about it, for a while you'd probably assume it was going to be a kitchen sink drama, until it transitions smoothly into a crime thriller. The abrupt leap into the last third demands the most from the viewer, though the movie plays fair and hints where it is going very early on.

It's also very light on exposition, which I found this to be a massive point in its favour. At no point do the characters stand around telling each other things that they already know. Instead, we pick up the story naturally, through inference and action. I know that some people were annoyed by the way that some elements remain completely unexplained, but I loved the sense of mystery throughout and firmly believe that being given more information would have weakened the movie. We learn enough to be able to comprehend what is going on, even if the reasons why are left largely to our imagination.

The dialogue is largely improvised by the cast, which isn't always a good idea but in this case works splendidly and helps to give the movie its believable, naturalistic tone. Everyone talks like real people having real conversations, but without becoming staid. Much of the movie's offbeat sense of humour is in the dialogue, with the biggest laughs coming from Irish comedian Michael Smiley as Gal. The entire cast is very good, with the biggest stand-out being Neil Maskell as Jay.

The sound design is also terrific. For example in one scene, where Gal goes into a building looking for Jay, we hear noises that make us nervous about what we are about to see, and similar instances run through the movie. Jim Williams's score lends an ominous atmosphere to several scenes that would otherwise seem fairly natural.

I am going to discuss the ending of the movie at some length, so from here on there will be significant SPOILERS. If you just want to know if I think you should see it, then yes, you should definitely see it.

(If you read past this point and you haven't seen Kill List yet, you will probably be eaten by lions. Otherwise, I am going to assume that you have seen the movie.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ghoulies (1985)

We open in the midst of a Satanic mass being conducted by Michael Des Barres (minor rock star, recurring MacGyver villain and ex-husband of famous groupie Pamela Des Barres), who's wearing an impressive set of horns. The mass is attended by white-robed cultists and small snot-encrusted puppet creatures. Des Barres is about to sacrifice his own baby when the mother comes forward to object, placing a protective talisman on it. He is so pissed he takes off his horns and tells cultist and David Lynch regular Jack Nance to take the baby away. He then uses his magic powers to rip the mother's heart from her chest while the puppets (known as Ghoulies) pin her down; unfortunately we don't see the end result but we do hear an amusing "Splut!" sound.

Then we get by far the creepiest moment of the entire movie, when a white-robed Jack Nance tells the baby that it is going to be safe. Cue the credits...

Charles Band is the undisputed king of the Small Creatures Attack subgenre of the horror movie. As producer and/or director of such movies as Puppet Master (which spawned nine sequels), Troll and Demonic Toys, Band's response to an idea like "Dirty Harry in space" would be to say, "Wouldn't it be better if he was six inches tall?" Band's dollmania peaked in the late '80s and early '90s, which I consider to be one of the worst times for horror movies as the genre was dominated by jokey bullshit, and his tiny terrors certainly contributed to the appalling state of the genre. He's still actively cranking out these things, with relatively recent effors like The Gingerdead Man and Evil Bong leading to sequels and crossovers with each other.

Even the stupidest obsessions have to start somewhere, and as far as I can tell the first time Charles Band expressed his cinematic love for small bitey things was Ghoulies. In this instance he farmed out the directing chores to Luca Bercovici, who also co-wrote the script. This is one of the few occassions where I found myself wishing that Charles Band had directed a movie himself, because Ghoulies is a badly paced movie with no visual panache.

The first half of the movie is taken up mostly by the exploits of Jonathan, the grown-up baby from the pre-credits sequence, after he has inherited his late father's mansion. He's been reading through dad's library, and decides to liven up his housewarming party with a summoning ritual. Nobody notices at first that this works and brings through some ghoulies, but soon Jonathan is regularly putting on his robes and doing black magic, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Rebecca. Soon Jonathan is mind-controlling everyone so that he can rope them into more elaborate rituals. Infrequent and awkwardly placed voice-over narration by Jack Nance explains that he is himself being controlled by his father.

Eventually Michael Des Barres is brought back from the dead while the ghoulies get serious and slaughter everyone. This is by far the most entertaining part of the movie, as the wee beasties make short work of Jonathan's idiotic friends. There's some minimal gore, an arresting scene where Bobbie Bresee throttles a guy with her ridiculously long and prehensile tongue (this scene reminded me of A Chinese Ghost Story), and a genuinely unnerving bit where a life-sized clown doll leaks green goo from its eyes.

It all leads to a climax where everything is made worthwhile for the sight of Jack Nance dressed as a wizard. If you're not turned on by the idea of Henry from Eraserhead in a purple robe and having a magical duel with a washed-up British rocker, Ghoulies probably isn't the movie for you. As a Gremlins ripoff it's no Critters, and as a story of black magic it's no Simon, King of the Witches. Somebody clearly liked it because it managed to spawn three sequels. I guess I have to watch those now. The second is written by Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon) so it may have something going for it.

This has been a Shortening in the tradition of The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I saw Suspiria live

This will probably be my shortest blog entry ever. About ten minutes ago I got home from a quick trip to Auckland to see Suspiria with Goblin playing the score as a live accompaniment. I think I understand what a religious experience is like now.

I'm a terrible photographer, but here is the gorgeous Civic theatre shortly before the band took the stage.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Eyes Without a Face (1959)

For many years, the horror movie was closely associated with crumbling castles, gas-lit streets, mobs with torches and pitchforks, and the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. Nowadays, when most people think of horror movies none of these things initially come to mind. The exact point where everything changed is difficult to find, but many people point to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead as being the turning point. As much as I love that movie and appreciate its enormous influence and importance to the genre, I think we have to look almost a decade earlier and well away from America to see where the horror movie really got it on with the 20th century.

A mere two years after England's Hammer Studios revived the horror genre by going back to its roots first with Frankenstein and then with DraculaEyes Without a Face gave us the modern horror movie in all its glory, perhaps for the first time. It's a beautifully made movie that would be a classic even if it were not such an important work in the history of the genre, and despite being a black and white movie over fifty years old, it still works its magic today. Or should I say its science? This is a movie that takes place resolutely in the real world, for all its poetic beauty and allegorical qualities. And yet in its way, it is absolutely a Gothic horror story: the shade of a dead girl wanders the corridors of an isolated mansion while a mad scientist performs hideous experiments in the basement. Eyes Without a Face straddles "classic horror" and "modern horror" so perfectly, it could have been designed specifically to demarcate the line between the two.

The movie opens with a woman (Alida Valli, somewhere between The Third Man and Suspiria) covertly driving a corpse to the river for disposal. All we can see at first is that there is something terribly wrong with its face beneath a pulled-down hat; when she drags it out of the car we see that under the man's raincoat is a naked female body. When the body is subsequently found by the police, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brausseur) identifies it as his daughter Christiane, who had gone missing after her face was disfigured in a car accident. But the woman accompanying Génessier at the funeral, Louise, is the same one who disposed of the body, and when they return home we find that Christiane (Edith Scob) is kept hidden there, her face behind a white porcelain mask. It transpires that Génessier, who was responsible for the accident which disfigured his daughter, has been attempting experimental skin grafts to restore her face and that the dead woman at the beginning was the unwilling donor for the latest attempt.

All of this is played in an interesting combination of strict realism and fairy-tale poetics. Christiane is played as a princess locked in an ivory tower; Scob essays the role with a very theatrical body language. Meanwhile, Dr. Génessier and Louise go about the business of finding donors with a cold efficiency. Louise is the one who goes out and finds them - in a chilling sequence of events we see her calculatedly approach and seduce a student called Edna, taking her time to gain the young woman's trust before luring her to Génessier's house. Louise is most certainly portrayed as being a lesbian, and not just in these scenes; although she is deeply loyal to Génessier, who has apparently saved her own face at some point in the past, she is even more devoted to Christiane. She is also very troubled by her conscience; she is upset at the deception when they are burying one of their victims in the family tomb as if it were Christiane, and even more so when Génessier deposits yet another victim in the tomb as if he were throwing away a bag of rubbish.

Génessier is far less sympathetic. He is cold and controlling, and the scenes which show him as a competent physician with a pleasant bedside manner only serve to show that he is capable of faking human emotion when he needs to. Although he does really seem to love his daughter, and is a little upset by the difficulty there will be in reconciling her with her fiance (who also happens to be his young colleague and probably his disciple) when she is supposed to be dead, he seems more annoyed that he has damaged his "possession" than that he has caused her pain and grief. In fact, he seems barely to notice her extreme depression.

Christiane is more difficult to pin down. It is unclear just how complicit she really is in her father's schemes - she does seem aware that he is transplanting other women's faces onto her own, but at the same time she doesn't seem to have processed what this actually means. This may simply be a result of how introverted and self-involved she has become since the accident - she does not seem to be wholly in her right mind, and the movie does seem to portray her as being an innocent. The scene where she wanders through the kennels where her father keeps the constantly-barking dogs he uses for experiments and calms them is a case in point. In any case, Scob's very expressive eyes often seem to hint at barely-restrained madness even as she drifts wraith-like through the enormous house. In a very real sense she is a ghost; the world believes she is dead, and yet there she is.

The way that these Gothic tropes are relocated to contemporary Paris is what makes Eyes Without a Face the first really modern horror movie. Realistic performances by most of the cast dovetail perfectly with Scob's more traditional horror-movie role. And then there is the surgery scene, where we actually see - in significant detail and graphic close-up - as Génessier first marks out, then cuts, and finally removes a woman's face. The special effects have dated in the last fifty-odd years, but the scene still packs a punch. Meanwhile we only catch a glimpse of Christiane's disfigurement, but the impression it gives is enough.

Outside of the cloistered and stifling world Génessier has built for Christiane and Louise, we get to see an extremely inefficient police inquiry that is the closest the movie gets to traditional B-movie territory. The idea of coercing a young woman caught shoplifting into being used as bait is completely hare-brained, and the police seem to have no idea how this is going to work. All that they manage to accomplish is to get another young woman onto Génessier's operating table with a minimum of fuss, which finally prompts Christiane into decisive action. After being a passive victim for the entire movie, Christiane sets the woman free, stabs Louise to death with a scalpel (Louise's puzzled reaction to this is quite affecting), and sets the dogs on her father before finally wandering out into the night, presumably to her own death.

The realism of the movie is contrasted (but not undercut) by the dreamy mise-en-scène; much of the photography, especially those establishing place, have a hazy, dreamlike quality which contrasts with the more hard-edged scenes inside the clinic and Génessier's house. Director Georges Franju would later use a similar style for his much more surreal Judex, a homage to the silent movie serials of Louis Feuillade. It also contrasts nicely with the potboiler elements of the script, which is written by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who had previously provided source material for Les Diaboliques and Vertigo.

This movie would be copied many times over the years. It is worth making a direct comparison with what was probably the first imitator, Jess Franco's 1961 film The Awful Dr. Orlof, which takes the exact same situation (a surgeon attempting to graft other women's faces onto that of his disfigured daughter) and turns it into a complete sleaze-fest, focusing on the evil Doctor and his monstrous assistant Morpho as they kidnap drunken prostitutes and cabaret performers to drag back to their remote crumbling castle. Franco keeps the atmosphere dark and dank, inserts possibly the first ever gratuitous nude body-doubling in movies, denies the equivalent of the Christiane character any dialogue or agency (in fact she spends the whole movie locked in a dungeon and doesn't even get to stand up), makes the police even stupider, and generally avoids art in favour of exploitation at every turn.

Although it was a critical disaster at the time and was released as exploitation (in the US it was retitled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and put on a double bill with the gonzo Japanese/American monster movie The Manster), Eyes Without a Face has gone on to be admired as a masterpiece of world cinema. And so, modern horror - and in particular, what we now think of as Euro-horror - began.

Here's the double-bill trailer:

Here's some highlights from the movie set to Portishead's music:

Here's the Billy Idol song of the same name, which actually features the movie's original French title in its background vocals:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

The movie opens with the camera representing the point of view of someone waking up in the middle of the night. You find that you are a man in bed with his wife, having been just awakened by your young daughter complaining that there are monsters in the house. You get up and go to the bathroom, splashing your face with water and catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. As you investigate the house, calling back that there are no monsters in the living room or the study, your daughter tells you to check the kitchen. When you push open the kitchen door, there are armed thugs in balaclavas waiting for you. One of them beats you repeatedly with a crowbar until you cannot stand. There is blood everywhere - you catch a glimpse of your mangled face in shards of a mirror on the floor - and you are making gurgling sounds.

The thugs drag your wife into the kitchen. One of them bends down in front of you and pulls off his balaclava, revealing himself to be Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Devereaux then shoots your wife in the head. As you scream and scream, the thugs drag your daughter into the kitchen as well, and Devereaux is just about to shoot her as well when there is a flash of white light and you wake up in a hospital, having been in a coma for nine months; apart from the vivid memory of the slaughter of your family, you have almost complete amnesia.

As well as succinctly setting up the situation and establishing the traumatized condition that the protagonist finds himself in, this scene ultimately serves to tell us that this movie does not play by the rules. Any expectations that we had about seeing a normal genre sequel have been smashed, and deservedly, because in terms of style, theme, content and tone, co-writer/director John Hyams has produced a unique personal vision with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The fact that he's done it with the sixth entry in an action movie series that was kicked off by Roland Emmerich is even more remarkable.

The previous movies in this series mostly dealt with the idea of "UniSols," soldiers who had been killed in battle. In the entry right before this one, Universal Solder: Regeneration, we were introduced to the next generation of UniSols, who are clones whose damaged body parts can be replaced Frankenstein-style. They're supposed to be the next generation of unstoppable soldiers, but up until now they've shown an alarming predilection for killing each other before they can get near to the enemy. This movie goes straight to the oddly under-utilized heart of the matter - these are cyborg zombies - and puts us right into the darkest part of this idea.

We follow the protagonist John (Scott Adkins) as he is discharged from hospital and attempts to put his life back together. He receives a strange phone call that starts leading him down a trail of forgotten acquaintances and dead bodies towards Devereaux, even as he finds evidence that seems to suggest that he is responsible for some of the corpses he encounters. He is also stalked and attacked on several occasions by a next-generation UniSol dressed as a plumber (Andrei Arlovski), who has been deprogrammed by a cloned Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) and has enlisted in Devereaux's army/religious cult.

Hyams uses an interesting, non-standard stylistic toolbox. For example, this movie features some of the most relentless use of strobe lighting I've seen outside of a Gaspar Noé movie. For the fight scenes he favours long takes, allowing us to see the fighters in motion. The fights themselves are hard-hitting and brutal, and feature every possible combination of fists, blunt objects, sharp objects and firearms. The sound design is very notable as well. The score is minimal both in terms of what is presented - an abstract soundscape with no traditional cues and no driving action-movie rhythms or beats - and in that many scenes pass without any music in them at all. The music we do get is nicely abstract and blends perfectly with the movie, for example the trilling sound during the strobing hallucination scenes. The sound during the action scenes is punched up to emphasise impact; blows are landed with what sounds like crushing force.

Thematically, the movie is deep in Philip K. Dick territory, with a paranoid protagonist who is trying to figure out who exactly he is any why he seems to have done so many terrible things that he has no memory of. Original movie stars Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme return in vastly altered roles, this time appearing on the same side: Andrew Scott (Lundgren) is now a John the Baptist figure, preaching salvation in the name of Luc Devereaux (Van Damme) as a Messiah who has figured out a way to break the UniSols' programming and set them free. Even in this freedom they remain violent and constantly on edge, requiring little provocation to turn on one another. Devereaux ultimately comes over as a figure reminiscent of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness - some explicit visual references to Apocalypse Now drive this home.

The two star names are both given the chance to do something different to what is usually expected of them. Lundgren is given entire speeches to deliver, which he digs into with obvious relish. Van Damme's role, though larger, is more stoic; in some ways he gives an extension of his melancholy performance from the arthouse hit JCVD. When John finally comes face to face with Devereaux, Van Damme greets him wearily and with resignation, as if something inevitable is coming to pass that he had been holding off for some time. Adkins is perfectly serviceable playing a confused everyman (his acting is a lot better here than in movies like Undisputed 3: Redemption or Ninja) but the fight scenes show us the real reason that he was cast in this movie. In the last third, when he shows us what he can really do, it's clear that hiring a top martial artist and working on his acting was a better idea in this instance than hiring a top actor and teaching him to fight.

 On the strength of what he's done here, I would fully expect John Hyams to go on to bigger movies. I for one hope that whatever kind of budget he ends up working with, he's given creative freedom, because the amount of imagination and ambition put into this movie is exactly the sort of thing that films on all levels need.

Now I'm not trying to say that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a flawless movie, because it clearly isn't. For example there are a few plot holes (e.g. it doesn't make sense that the Universal Plumber keeps trying to kill John even after he's been deprogrammed), and there isn't enough information on what Devereaux is up to; there are tantalizing hints, but I could have done with some resolution there. The movie's attitude to women isn't great either; apart from the murdered wife and child in the opening scene and a motherly nurse seen soon afterwards, all of the other women in the movie are strippers or prostitutes; only one has a significant speaking role and she's a girlfriend character mostly used as a post for tying exposition to.

But at the end of the day, this movie does everything that it's supposed to do and more: it's exciting and scary throughout, it features striking cinematic style and it provides plenty of interesting ideas. More of this, please!