Friday, 30 December 2016

New Films Round Up #5 - reviews of Downhill (Chile/Canada/France 2016), Holidays (USA 2016), I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (USA/Canada 2016), Hush (USA 2016), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK 2016) and Broken (UK 2016)

Last round-up of the year fright fans - 6 more movies made or released this year which have caught my eye (and sometimes left bits of grit in it):

Downhill (Chile/Canada/France 2016: Dir Patricio Valladeres) Another example of the 'chuck-a-whole-lot-of-genre-stuff-in-and-see-what-sticks' school of horror movie making, this is a breakneck speed movie bringing us the story of 'retired' competition cyclist Joe, summoned to Chile by a mate for one last tournament. Joe and his girlfriend Stephanie meet up with Pablo and Magdalena, but soon after arriving at Santiago airport they're deep in the countryside rescuing a total stranger from a car crash and being set upon by the local toughs. Just when you thought this might just all be a bit Eden Lake the rescued guy develops a weird infection (Cabin Fever) which makes him sprout growths (very The Thing) and there's also a local cult which feeds their victims long snake like things that seem to come from from the stomach of victims of the virus (all sorts of films).

The makers of Downhill cleverly disguise the low budget with some fast moving action sequences (headcams on bikes with a pumping score) and purposefully disjointed editing. This film really shouldn't work but the energy of its cast make and some quite disturbing WTF moments make this a stand out example of horror-on-a-shoestring. The Chilean countryside is also shown off to great effect, and gives a real sense of vastness in which all manner of head scratchy oddness is allowed to take place. Silly but accomplished, this film is anything but downhill all the way.

Holidays (USA 2016: various directors) Anthology or portmanteau films seem to be in the ascendancy again. Unlike their 1960s/1970s precedents which were made by one director, the new batch are clearly a good way to show off the talents of a variety of contemporary film makers, most of whom seem to cut their teeth on short films anyway so it's not much of an effort to string a few together and call it a feature in its own right. To be fair many of the contributors to the zippy Holidays are well established film makers already, which perhaps explains why the segments - each of which is a different take on seasonal holidays eg Valentine's Day, Christmas, Hallowe'en etc - manage to be consistently good, and much less hit and miss than many similar movies doing the rounds in the last few years.

Standouts of the eight 'vignettes' are Gary (Dracula Untold) Shore's 'Happy St Patrick's Day' where spunky Ruth Bradley (great in 2012's Grabbers) is an eccentric schoolteacher who ends up pregnant with a something, Nicholas (The Pact) McCarthy's short and sharp 'Easter' where a little girl's fear of the annual visit from the Easter bunny turns into murderous reality, and Sarah Adina Smith's 'Mother's Day,' about a woman seeking medical help because she gets pregnant every time she has sex.

Having mentioned all this, Holidays is a rather gentle form of this type of movie. There's none of the over-the-topness of the V/H/S or ABCs of Death movies, but each story is well done, moderately diverting, and, oh yes, good fun.

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (USA/Canada 2016: Dir: Oz Perkins) Perkins - yep, that is Tony's son - has two films streaming in the UK at the moment. February aka The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015) is a ponderous tale of evil stalking a girl's school. But this is a thrill ride next to his most recent offering, which is currently streaming on (UK at least) Netflix.

Ruth Wilson, who was so good as Jane Eyre in the eponymous 2006 BBC/PBS mini series - but who has taken some very strange roles since - adopts the same terrible US accent she deployed in the insipid Showtime TV production The Affair to play Lily, a young nurse sent a remote gothic house to care for elderly Iris Blum, a former author. Lily is a cynical young woman who is clearly only in it for the paypacket, but when she begins to read Blum's books out of boredom, she gets sucked into a world that may either be her own wild imaginings or the supernatural at work, featuring a character called Polly, which is also the name that Iris uses to address Lily.

IATPTTLiTH (whew, even the letters take ages to type) takes the bold step of trying to create a film where image is subservient to language. Its images are often little more than illustrations of the moribund voiceovers from Lily and Iris as her younger self. There's an almost Bergman-esque feel in the overlaying of characters here, and the movie - if that's not too grand a word - stretches ambiguity to breaking point. The attempt to make this a film that's read to the audience of course removes any frights and ultimately makes it a turgid chore. Like trying to read Henry James, when you really want to read M R James. I appreciate that Perkins is trying something different, but his succession of tableaux vivants left me completely cold.

Hush (USA 2016: Dir Mike Flanagan) Terence Young's 1967 movie Wait Until Dark and the 1971 film Blind Terror directed by Richard Fleischer both featured sightless women being menaced at home. Mike Flanagan's Hush maintains the same setup, but adds more violence and replaces the heroine's visual disability with hearing loss. Flanagan has scored highly with a run of fright hits this year. Ouija - Origin of Evil and Before I Wake are both competent horror movies (the former particularly good, rescuing the original movie from deserved obscurity) and Hush is similarly effective (it's probably no coincidence that the director has 'borrowed' the title from arguably the most frightening episode of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Kate Siegel (Flanagan's wife) plays Maddie, a deaf writer who lives on her own. She is a successful author and has adjusted to her disability after contracting meningitis as a child and going deaf as a result. However Kate's peaceful existence is shattered when a masked intruder kills a neighbour, then mounts a sustained cat-and-mouse style attack on her home. But unlike the heroines of the previously mentioned films Kate is resourceful and knows how to fight back, and it's this toughness that wrongfoots the viewing audience, who may have thought they were about to endure another helpless woman-in-peril flick.

Flanagan skilfully sets up scene after scene that in a weaker director's hands could have lead to second reel ennui. After all the setup - one man, one woman, one house - is quite limited.  Hush is an effective thriller with a strong central performance from Siegel, and it's good to settle down and be entertained by a director comfortable working in this field, and who knows how to skillfully manipulate an audience. Recommended.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK 2016: Dir André Øvredal) A very effective low budget chiller about a
father and son autopsy team who, faced with the corpse of an attractive young girl with an unknown identity, gradually unleash an evil force as they go about their work.

UK made and co-produced, this is a far cry from Øvredal's previous feature, the well respected (which means I didn't like it) found footage monster movie Trollhunter back in 2010. The sense of fun that inhabited that film strays into TAoJD too. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch, playing the father and son team Tommy and Austin Tilden, have an easy camaraderie which makes their characters believable despite only the slightest of backstory brushstrokes. The director boldly restricts all the action to a couple of rooms in the team's mortuary, and when the scares arrive Øvredal is careful not to resort to an over the top firework display, but rather continues the 'onion skin' approach to telling the story, revealing more and more details as the autopsy progresses. Again it's a risky step to have so much of the movie's content centred on an inanimate body, but it works.

As some other critics have commented, this is little more than a (pun intended) fleshed out TV episode, but it's a never less than watchable offering from a director who should by all rights be making films more often, and whose next project, Mortal (about a young man discovering he has Norse god like powers) sounds like one to watch. 

Broken (UK 2016: Dir Shaun Robert Smith) This is an extremely odd and sadly only partly successful film by a UK director whose background is in horror. Broken isn't a horror film per se but it has the feel of an urban fright flick.

John is a former rock star who is now a tetraplegic following a chemically enhanced jump off a tall building, and unable to do anything for himself - at the film's start he calls out for assistance, having just soiled his bed. He is angry and egotistical, requiring 24 hour care. Evie, one of his carers, has come to the UK leaving a dark past behind, but the level of abuse she suffers from John, and also John's ex band member and all round nogoodnik Dougie, leaves the audience wondering how bad her past experiences must have been for her to tolerate the present situation. John's nihilism, fed by booze and drugs supplied by Dougie, turns the house into a 24 hour party zone in which Evie tries her best to do her job. But her past will not leave her, and Evie's need to remain professional approaches breaking point. 

This is a powerful, angry film, low on budget but high on raw performances. Mel Raido as John and Morjana Alaoui (who electrified as Anna in Pascal Laugier's 2008 film Martyrs) as Evie deliver very different but equally strong performances. John's drab, squalid house, now taken up with all the accoutrements of 24 hour medical care, is a dismal battleground for the war of will between patient and carer (although I did have a little trouble accepting that this was the home of a former successful rock star). 

Broken's conclusion is well signposted and, to be honest, something of a letdown, coming at the end of an otherwise very tense but authentic film. There was, arguably, nowhere else to go with the story and I don't blame Smith for his decision. This film is a cry of rage although an internally directed one - Broken isn't an indictment of this country's care system, but it sure is a movie that makes you think very carefully about ever working in it.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Delusion (USA 2016: Dir Christopher Di Nunzio) plus short interview with the director

Anyone worried about 'the state of cinema' would do well to look past the popcorn fodder that fills the multiplexes, which represents only a percentage of total film output, and search out the plethora of independent movies currently available to view, although not necessarily on cinema screens. Christopher Di Nunzio's Delusion is a fine example of a movie that knows the limitations of its budget and instead works on creating a sombre downbeat mood which harks back to the regional indie US movies of the 1970s.

Frank Parillo is a lost soul. In grief over the loss of his wife Isabella, he's torn between cherishing her memory but wanting to feel a woman's love again. Belatedly receiving a letter from Isabella some three years after her death (a strange scene which shows, in his passive acceptance, how mired in grief he remains), which implores him to live life to the full, he encounters a strange and much younger woman, Mary. She quickly seduces him, despite a warning from a fortune teller that she is not what she seems. Frank's life begins to fall apart as he realises that the fortune teller is right and Mary may well be supernatural in origin. But by then it's too late.

Di Nunzio's short and full length film output has oscillated between supernaturally and crime themed movies, but all have been more character than narrative driven. 2009's Livestock mixed Sopranos-style gangsters with occult horror. His second feature, last year's A Life Not to Follow, was a fractured neo-noir tale of drug dealers and more gangsters. Frank Parillo, a tough, grizzled type with a New England drawl, could equally have stepped out of a crime movie. But rather than showing us a violent side, Parillo's actually a software developer (although we never see him at the day job). He's amiable but aimless, a man wandering through a life now without purpose, seeking an end to his grief.

David Graziano as Frank Parillo

Delusion takes its time in unveiling the supernatural elements of the story - when they arrive, they're delivered as matter-of-factly as the rest of the film, although we're not really sure what we're seeing. We learn that Mary has been spending some time 'in Mexico' and from various clues around the house it is assumed that she is connected in some way with the country's festival of the dead - but does she really exist, or is Mary simply a manifestation of Frank's grief? Delusion is leisurely and contemplative, but never boring - only the infrequent and bizarre dream sequences break the movie's overall pacing. I was reminded of early 1970s independent quasi-supernatural output like George Romero's Season of the Witch (1973) and the 1971 movie Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but also, via the roving camera of Nolan Yee and the naturalistic performances, Nick Cassavetes' slow, intimate dramas like Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence (1970 and 1974 respectively).

As Parillo, relatively unknown actor David Grazanio is a revelation, with a natural style and soporific world-weariness that makes him totally believable. His hangdog expression and yearning for a female connection make it quite understandable that he should fall for Mary's (Jami Tannille) chilly charms, even though the audience can see that she's T-R-O-U-B-L-E (her encouraging of Frank to live life to the full is of course a repetition of the advice of his dead wife, albeit with disastrous consequences). There are a number of supporting actors who don't do much but are crucial to establishing the movie's small town feel (Delusion was filmed on location across Massachusetts): Carlyne Fournier, as Isabella, is a standout, having the difficult job of conjuring up a believable character seen only in flashback.

Jami Tannille as Mary
I was sufficiently intrigued by Di Nunzio's output to seek him out and ask a few questions. The director was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts and attended film classes at Massachusetts College of Art, School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:

DEoL: What was the genesis of the idea for Delusion?

CDN: It's hard to say because it evolved from an older script. I knew I wanted to make a film with more controlled camera movements and tell a more obscure story then I did with my last film. For me it was really about trying to control the emotional arch. 

DEoL: Your 2009 film Livestock and this one both have supernatural/occult themes but nothing is really made specific in either. What is it about this theme that appeals to you?

CDN: I've always been into the occult since I was a teenager. I remember staying up late researching all these different organizations and theories. I love the imagery and movies with that theme. I guess I have always been fascinated with the concept of hidden knowledge. I also like the idea that something supernatural could happen and you don't have an answer for it. It's refreshing and weird, things really do happen no matter what you believe in. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation. 

DEoL: Delusion reminded me of a lot of 1970s US indie low budget flicks. Were there any films (or TV, books etc) that you had in mind when filming Delusion?

CDN: I am a big fan of Let's Scare Jessica to Death and 1970s crime and horror films. It was a good decade for occult films but I didn't have any specific film in mind. Me and our Director of Photography Nolan Yee watched a few scenes from the films of Bella Tarr to get an idea of where we wanted to go with camera movement. Not that we're trying to do anything like those films but it's a fun way to get the conversation going about cinematography. I do like to help create organic and natural performances. I always preach subtlety as well. Not to sound clichéd but I feel like when you take that approach you find the truth in the character. I think the audience can sense that and helps them connect to the performance better, and that's always a good thing for a film. 

Christopher Di Nunzio
DEoL: The acting was uniformly good but David Graziano was a revelation - the way he combined grief, desire and overall world weariness was fantastic - also he could have stepped out of The Sopranos or a crime movie, except he's a software designer! Tell me about the actor and the character of Frank.

CDN: Funny you say crime film because David and I first started working together on a crime film I co-wrote and directed called A Life Not To Follow. He was recommended by a friend of ours, Skip Shea, and I thought he looked like a detective from a 70s film which made me want to cast him. I quickly learned he gives 110% and is very professional. He is always game to try something new. For Frank I wanted to create an average every day type of guy. Someone you can picture as an uncle, someone's dad or even a neighbour. I felt by making him relateable that way his journey would be that much more tragic. David and I talked a lot about the psychology of the character and what is going to happen to him and in concentrating on creating a natural, real performance we would add a lot of depth to Frank. I also gave David a piece of music that was 19 minutes of this weird pulsating sound, and at certain moments in the film I wanted him to play that song in his head over and over again. Almost like the powers were calling to him. 

DEoL: Could you tell me about some of the other casting choices and did any of the characters change from the original scripting when cast? 

CDN: Nothing really changed from the original script but of course some things naturally do change when making a film, like suddenly you want to have a character with an edge. Maybe you randomly thought up some sort of new trait or tick. Maybe you explore a different angle last minute. Something seems to always develop or changes but nothing too drastic to mention.

Jami Tannille who plays Mary was someone I saw in a film and really liked her look and thought she had amazing timing and screen presence. It would've been really hard to recast her. She has a lot of range. 

Carlyne Fournier, who plays Isabella, is someone I've seen in a few films and known for a while. I just thought she would be a great fit with David plus she's talented and professional. Also a lot of fun to have on set!

DEoL: My readers always like a few shoot details - could you tell me a bit about how long the shoot was, budget, location choices, any compromises etc.

CDN: It took us nine days to shoot the whole film. We had a lot of long days and one sleepover. There was also a month or so break in between. The house we used was in Cape Cod and belonged to our sound recordist Laura Grose's girlfriend's Dad. We were lucky to get the house since it fit the character Frank so well. We also shot all over Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. We shot at a diner in Gardner, MA that was also used for the film School Ties [1992 movie with Matt Damon and Brendan Fraser]. We also shot the little car chase scene in Ashburnham, MA which I had no idea was even a real town until right before we shot there. Pretty place but nothing around. 

DEoL: The film is streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK. Did it ever get a theatrical release? Also what are the future distribution plans for the film?

CDN: Unfortunately, it didn't make it into the theaters. As of right now it's just on Amazon Prime in the US, Canada, and UK. I'm not sure the exact strategy yet but our distributor will be releasing it on more platforms soon. They like to release it on Amazon first.

DEoL: What's next for you?

CDN: I'm trying to get a name actor attached and find funding for new feature crime film. It's about a hitman who had second thoughts about doing what he does and trying to walk away from it all. I have my fingers crossed! 

DEoL: Thanks Christopher and best of luck with Delusion and your future projects!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

New Films Round Up #4 - Reviews of Abattoir (USA 2016), The Darkest Dawn (UK 2016), Antibirth (Canada/USA 2016), Satanic (USA 2016), Fear Inc (USA 2016) and The Devil Lives Here (Brazil 2016)

Abattoir (USA 2016: Dir Darren Lynn Bousman)  Bousman's movie, about a seemingly immortal man, Jebediah Crone, who feeds off the souls of murdered people by entrapping them in a constructed house made up of the murder rooms of each of the victims (a very cool idea), is based on a series of comic books also created by the director. A planned web series, turning Abbatoir into a multi-media spectacle, hasn't happened, but the whole concept is really interesting.

Jessica Lowndes plays Julia Talben, a reporter whose family are slaughtered in their home, and who, in investigating the deaths further with her detective accomplice Grady, finds a pattern emerging. Over the years houses which are the scene of murderous acts are quickly bought and then re-sold, with the rooms in which the deaths occurred removed first. Talben connects the dots which take her to the remote town of New English, which turns out to be her own birthplace too. Talben and Grady gradually piece the story together, encountering the evil Crone and his band of followers, and attempt to foil Jebediah's master plan. 

So yes, I liked this. It's packed full of ideas, some of which work and some don't (the initial faux forties look and dialogue is quickly and advisedly dropped - I'm sure it worked better in the comic strips - and some of the ghost effects at the end tip over into plain silliness) but it's wonderfully atmospheric with some well used Louisiana locations and a brooding score by Mark Sayfritz. Abattoir also fails to deliver the obligatory redemptive ending, hinting at the possibility of a sequel. Bousman's earlier work - including three installments of the Saw franchise and the over the top Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) - have suggested a talented low budget film maker learning his craft. Abattoir, by no means a perfect movie, demonstrates skill with a small budget and a desire to try something new in a crowded genre market.

The Darkest Dawn (UK 2016: Dir Drew Casson) Impossibly young and possibly talented Drew Casson brought out the micro budgeted, derivative but still impressive Hungerford back in 2014. Tasteless title aside (Hungerford was the town where crazed inhabitant Michael Ryan killed and wounded more than 30 people in a gun spree back in 1987), the movie concerned an alien invasion straight out of Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, with alien beings attaching themselves to residents of the town and controlling their brains. The Darkest Dawn is set in London, and also deals with an alien attack across the UK and the efforts of a small band of survivors to escape from the Capital and head to Manchester.

The very impressive opening, with its post production scenes of mayhem - including an extremely believable plane crash - bodes well, but once Casson draws you in, the remainder of the film is an extended hike around Blighty with our bickering survivors. Central to this group is the plucky but irritating Chloe Murdock (Bethan Mary Leadley) who has captured everything we see on a digital camera, a present for her 16th birthday. So yes, we're in 'found footage' territory once again, which provides plenty of opportunities for Chloe to speak direct to camera, with messages for her (presumably now dead) family about how brave she's being in the face of all this alien adversity.

It's difficult to know quite what Drew Casson was attempting to achieve with The Darkest Dawn. There's nothing that audiences haven't seen many times before; it's perfectly serviceable but terribly drawn out, with only a few scenes of CGI mayhem to leaven the endless footage of people tramping around shouting at each other.

Antibirth (Canada/USA 2016: Dir Danny Perez) Oh lordy, this one's nuts.

Natasha Lyonne (yes, that Natasha Lyonne) plays Lou, a wild child who following an evening out in the company of a marine, passes out and wakes up the morning after, well, sort of pregnant, despite maintaining that they didn't do the nasty. Her friend and fellow substance hooverer-upper Sadie (played by Chloë Sevigny, yes that Chloë Sevigny) is little help, and when a pregnancy test confirms the chain-smoking, bong bashing Lou is definitely in the family way, she encounters the weird Lorna (played by Meg Tilly - yes that Meg Tilly) who may have an explanation for the weird thing growing inside Lou's stomach, involving secret experimentation on young soldiers.

If I mention that writer/director Danny Perez's first spell in the director's chair was 2010's Oddsac, a 54 minute non narrative film which was basically an extended video for wackjob Baltimore band 'Animal Collective' with whom he regularly collaborates, you'll get some idea that Antibirth is a film best viewed through, er, artistic lenses. Both storyline and the collected contents of Lou's stomach are metaphorically and literally all over the place. I loved the ending - there is a birth and it's twins...after a fashion - but a lot of this film is like a cross between a Frank Henenlotter movie and Jed Johnson's 1977 flick Andy Warhol's Bad. If you think that's a recommendation, well then it is.

Satanic (USA 2016: Dir Jeffrey G Hunt) Ah, PG rated horror films - they're great, aren't they? Well some are. This isn't. Jeffrey Hunt is best known for his work behind the camera on a plethora of US TV programmes, including several CSI spinoffs. This becomes painfully apparent in the endless drone and pan shots of the LA skyline at night, and the slick but flat TV style of his direction. The story is the opposite of a tidily concluded 40 minute drama that he would be used to making, and, let's be quite clear about this, makes absolutely no sense in its final stages.

A group of young people are taking a school break. Enroute to a music festival, they decide to turn dark tourist and travel to LA to check out the death scenes of victims of (real life) satanist Anton le Vey. Snooping around these sites they come across an actual black magic mass and help a young girl, Alice, to escape the coven's clutches. Instead of thanking them the girl utters some enigmatic phrases and then cuts her own throat. Now under police surveillance strange things begin to happen to the group - it looks like Alice was the conduit for the forces of evil which now threaten our heroes. I'll stop there, because at this point I lost any understanding of what was happening. There's some poltergeist activity, a turgid power ballad, a lot of screaming and one of those 'self reflexive' endings deployed when there's nowhere else to go plot wise.

I'll make one confession: I was kind of fascinated with Sarah Hyland, who plays goody goody Chloe (and is therefore destined to make it to the final reel). Hyland is a great comedy actress - her prissy, narcissistic turn as Haley Dunphy in TV's Modern Family is a delight. But as a yelling machine, she's just awful. With her large saucer shaped head and bulging eyes she's like a live-action version of one of Tim Burton's puppetoons. And while she and the rest of the cast use the F-Bomb like it's going out of fashion, they manage to drum up not one iota of drama. A bad bad film, and while I have a strict no spoiler policy on this site, don't look at the movie's poster unless you want to find out how Ms Hyland ends up.

Fear Inc (USA 2016: Dir Vincent Masciale) Here's an enjoyable horror comedy that out post moderns Scream and all its sequels. It's Hallowe'en and we meet Joe, who's the kind of guy you need on your pub quiz team if the bonus round is 'US horror movies of the last twenty years.' He's a walking movie guide, always out for a seasonal thrill. So when he finds out about 'Fear Inc,' a company who specialise in custom made pranks for punters who think they're hard enough, he's disappointed when, after making the call, he's told that they're 'sold out' and can't help him. Well that's their story. Shortly afterwards, relaxing at his Australian girlfriend's luxury house with his other mates, the terror begins, and the group are stalked and despatched in the manner of famous scenes from horror movies. Perversely Joe is delighted, but when his girlfriend is kidnapped and he's forced into some Saw-like decisions he changes his mind.

Fear Inc doesn't start very well, but the second half is a rather clever update of the 'do you like scary movies?' school of film making, which ups the pace and manages a good deal of tension as well as knowing humour. There's nothing particularly new in this, but there's some good performances and a couple of laugh out loud sight gags. There's clearly a moral here about the negative impact of a life spent consuming horror culture and the subsequent inability to separate reality from fiction, and watching Joe communicating entirely via lines of movie dialogue made this reviewer think twice about how annoying he might be when talking about films. Not bad.

The Devil Lives Here (Brazil 2016: Dir Rodrigo Gasparini and Dante Vescio) Gasparini and Vescio's debut feature - previously titled The Fostering - is a decidedly baffling story about the sadistic slave owner of an apiary who calls himself, no, not the Honey Monster, but the Honey Baron, and who is mixed up in all kinds of violent goings on. Two centuries previously the Baron was murdered by one of his slaves, and the illegitimate child he fathered is also killed. Following his murder the Baron's vengeful spirit is kept in check by descendants of the slave, but when a group of young people arrive at the house where an annual ritual of driving a nail into the ground keeps the Baron away, they are caught up in a web of terror. Or something. I had quite some difficulty working out what was going on.

The movie draws on elements of Candyman and The Evil Dead but the promise of a violent denouement presaged by the heightened score doesn't actually appear, and the merging of youth in peril, some rather ill advised comedy with a smattering of folk horror didn't really work. Pacing is a massive issue in a film which just tips the hour and a quarter mark, and although ambitious in scope for the budget, The Devil Lives Here really does crawl along.

I did like Pedro Salles Santiago's creepy soundtrack, a symphony of discordant notes and insidious scratching, and I can applaud the attempt to make something of Brazil's rich folk heritage and its troubled past as the backdrop for the horror. But it's a bit of a mess really, a film that tries too hard to be intriguing, and could possibly have benefited from a simpler premise and, well, more scares.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Night of the Demon (UK 1957: Dir Jacques Tourneur)

These are the notes from my introduction to the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse on Sunday 4 December 2016

Good afternoon. My name's David Dent, a local writer on film, and I'm here to give you an introduction to one of my favourite horror films.

This afternoon’s film, Night of the Demon, has a claim to fame in being the only direct big screen adaptation of one of the ghost stories of M R James. Published at the beginning of the last century, James’s tales of dusty academics foraging in old churches and houses, disturbing things that shouldn’t be disturbed, and being menaced by unknown demonic forces as a result, are arguably not particularly cinematic.

That’s not to say that James hasn’t been an inspiration for film makers; some have spliced elements of his stories into their movies, while others have adopted a Jamesian feel rather than direct references. Quite what ‘Jamesian’ means is a bit of a loose concept, but usually involves some sort of creeping dread, a gradual haunting rather than a succession of shocks, and a sense of the unreal entering into the everyday. Some of the other films in Picturehouse’s current ‘A Warning to the Curious’ season are good examples of this: the 1970 UK film Blood on Satan's Claw finds a hairy monster summoned by 18th century English country villagers, David Robert Mitchell’s recent US flick It Follows sees a bunch of young slackers being menaced by a slowly advancing something, and the terrific recent Iran set film, Under the Shadow, has a mother and child haunted by an ancient being in war torn Tehran.

In keeping with the claustrophobic nature of his writings, adaptations of the James canon have been far more successful on television. Most famous of these was the run of adaptations on the BBC between 1971 and 1975 by former documentary maker Lawrence Gordon Clark under the ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ umbrella. For those of a certain age eg me, these will always fondly be remembered as rites of passage television, screened at a time when children like me should have been in bed, but were allowed to stay up by seasonally motivated sherry fuelled parents, who were as chilled as their offspring when watching the broadcasts. Gordon Clark eventually left the BBC but went on to adapt ‘Casting the Runes’ for ITV in 1979.

Which brings us to this afternoon’s film, also a reasonably faithful adaptation of ‘Casting the Runes,’ one of James’s more lively tales. Originally published in 1911, it’s the story of a researcher for the British Museum, who has recently unfavourably reviewed some writings by the notorious Mr Karswell, an Aleister Crowley-like alchemist and occultist. The researcher, Dunning, finds that he has been cursed by Karswell, via a rune – a parchment containing arcane symbols secretly passed to him – which will summon a demon at an appointed hour to kill the possessor of the parchment. Dunning must find a way to reverse his demonic death sentence before the appointed time of his demise. 

The script for the film began development in 1955 at the hands of former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett who held the rights to the story, with Elstree Studio booked for the shoot.  At more or less the same time just 40 minutes down the road, a guy called Anthony Hinds was negotiating another adaptation of literary weirdness – Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' at Bray studios, which would become the first of Hammer Studios’ popular Eastmancolor horror outings, entitled The Curse of Frankenstein. The British horror film, which up until that point had produced only a small handful of examples of the genre - notably Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night in 1945 – was about to see in its golden age of English Gothic film making, kicking off with these two 1957 releases.

But I digress. Bennett’s working script title was 'the Bewitched,' although that changed to 'The Haunted' during filming. Both of these titles give you an idea of the subtlety that Bennett was aiming at with his adaptation – that would all change with the arrival of one Hal Chester, to whom Bennett sold his script.

The American former child star turned movie producer Chester optioned Bennett’s script to Columbia Pictures. In the grand tradition of movie hucksters Chester claimed that he had already written his own treatment of the movie, and used Bennett’s only because it had more detailed production notes. But he had the decency to give Bennett top billing for the script, even though, in the producer’s eyes anyway, it was largely Chester’s own.

Having secured a deal with Columbia, Chester started injecting a few more commercial ideas into the script, with his eyes firmly on the youth market to whom the movie would be pitched on release. Most controversial was the suggestion that audiences should actually see the 40 foot high fire demon, which was only suggested in Bennett’s original screenplay. He entrusted the specifics of these changes to long-time friend and former Orson Welles collaborator Cy Endfield, a McCarthy blacklisted screenwriter who had left the US for England in 1950. Like many caught up in the anti-communist House Un-American Activities trials, Endfield came to the UK in order to keep working, mainly as a script doctor. He remained uncredited in the film, as his inclusion would have automatically resulted in the film being blacklisted in the States.

To direct Chester chose French born Jacques Tourneur, who had famously worked with director Val Lewton at RKO studios in the 1940s with a string of expressionist horror movies, whose lurid titles betrayed their subtlety – films like CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN.

Tourneur was impressed with Bennett’s script, but he also did some rewriting of his own, being
unhappy with the sudden lurches towards horror – Tourneur envisioned something more psychological, trying to reconcile Endfield and Chester’s more lurid ideas with Bennett’s nuanced take on the story. In the end Bennett didn’t recognise any of his script and wanted his name taken off the project. He failed. Years later a still bitter Bennett said of Chester  “if he walked up my driveway right now, I’d shoot him dead.”

To help bolster his confidence when dealing with the pushy Chester, Tourneur cast two actors in leading roles who he both knew and trusted. Peggy Cummins played Joanna Harrington (a character not in the original story) and Dana Andrews was selected for the lead part of John Holden, a name change from James's Dunning.  

Andrews had been battling alcoholism for some years, and as his drinking increased in the 1950s the parts began to dry up. But Tourneur took a chance on him. Chester was less impressed, claiming that Andrews, drunk, fell down the steps of the plane when it brought him to England The Head of Columbia pictures also witnessed this and the mogul reputedly questioned of Chester “There’s your star?” Andrews largely kept it together but close watching of the film reveals one or two scenes which demonstrate that he must have been a nightmare to direct.

Andrews was a character, that’s for sure. One story tells of ten policemen arriving on set one day to arrest him. Apparently Andrews used to go out on the town after shooting and on one occasion slapped a girl in a bar. The production company had to pay the girl off to avoid a common assault lawsuit. Also while shooting the film he attended a Royal Command Performance in London. On being presented to the Queen, she asked him whether he was in England for business or pleasure. He told her he was here making a film about witchcraft in England, and she replied saying “Good heavens. Don’t bring that back again!”

Another piece of casting worth noting is Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as Julian Karswell – the script gave him a first name which James’s story did not. His performance is a tour de force of profound menace cut with gentlemanly charm. MacGinnis was used to more prestigious pictures than this – four years previously he’d been the lead in Irving Pichel’s brilliant 1953 biopic Martin Luther – but he delivers his role with dignity and panache.

And Brit TV fans should also keep a look out for Brian Wilde as crazed farmer Rand Hobart. Wilde is more popularly remembered for his parts as soft prison warder Mr Barrowclough and amiable Foggy Dewhurst in BBC comedies ‘Porridge’ and ’Last of the Summer Wine.’

The Director of Photography on the film was Ted Scaife. Scaife was a much in demand cameraman who’d previously done some great work on films like 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings and An Inspector Calls the previous year. His night shots are particularly good – no easy feat on a limited budget with a fairly tight shooting schedule – and he imbues various mundane locations like Bricket Wood train station and Watford Junction with a real sense of unease.

Night of the Demon is now considered a classic of that rather awkwardly categorised sub genre known as folk horror. It has also seeped into popular culture. Two examples being a line from the opening song in the 1973 musical 'The Rocky Horror Show' which goes "Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes/And passing them uses lots of skill." And more recently a sample of Professor Harrington’s chilling line, uttered in the movie's séance scene “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” was used by Kate Bush in her 1986 hit ‘Hounds of Love.'

Night of the Demon is a classic, of that there’s no doubt. That it successfully combines subtle scares and brilliant set pieces, while maintaining the sense of Jamesian dread as the story unfolds, is some feat. That it manages to do this when you consider its production history is something of a miracle. I still find the séance scene one of the most frightening in any British horror film. For those that have seen it, you’ll be pleased to know that rumours of me about to lead the audience in a sing a long to the song ‘Cherry Ripe’ are quite unfounded.

And before we settle into the movie, I leave you with this information. A new film adaptation of 'Casting the Runes' was announced back in 2013 by director Joe Dante, a modernised re-imagining of the story with James's characters of Dunning now portrayed as a celebrity blogger and Karswell a successful motivational speaker and self-help guru with connections to the occult. Actor Simon Pegg has been attached to star. I am beside myself with excitement.

Now, does anyone have Mr Joe Dante’s address (producing a rune from pocket)?

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals (USA 2016: Dir Tom Ford)

Wow, 2016 may have had a slow start (film wise, that is) but the second half of the year has delivered some sensational films, of which Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is a great example.

His first movie, 2009's A Single Man, left me decidedly cold, all calculated surface and mannered performances - something you'd expect from a former commercial fashion designer, Ford's previous occupation. But his adaptation of Austin Wright's 1993 novel 'Tony and Susan,' although teasing with the same apparent superficiality, has a slowly coiling tension within which, like the character of Susan in the film, engrossed in reading the book dedicated to her, occasionally made me gasp out loud.

Amy Adams (a mass of neuroses and anxious glances) plays Susan Morrow, an art collector and exhibitor whose gallery has all the warmth of a chest freezer. She is cool and remote as befits the world she moves in. Susan's husband Hutton, we learn immediately, is good looking, also distant, and involved in an affair that he does little to hide.

Susan receives a parcel in the post, and asks her assistant to open it and read the note inside (a nice touch which says a lot about her life). Inside is the manuscript of a book, written and dedicated to her by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who she left for Hutton because she was fed up with Sheffield's constantly heightened emotional state. With Hutton away on 'business' Susan settles down to read the book, the contents of which are depicted to us on screen over several 'readings.' The story-within-a-story is also a roman à clef, telling the tale of a family - husband Tony, wife and daughter - forced off the road by thugs, with the women abducted and later killed. Tony - who in Susan's imagining of the story is actually Edward Sheffield (although he remains unseen in Susan's 'real world') - teams up with a Texas cop with a limited life expectancy and a determination to get his man (Michael Shannon, a truly great actor). Together they hunt down the killers in decidedly unorthodox ways over a number of years.

'Nocturnal Animals' the book is a nasty piece of work. Grisly and violent, with an emotional undercurrent at times almost too much to bear, Susan's Peckinpah-esque mental realisation of the book is one of the first clues to the film's subtext and her own troubled mind. Through flashbacks to her past with Edward she instinctively visualises Sheffield as the Tony character, and as the story progresses - through a combination of those flashbacks and hints at Edward's character in the story - the reasons why Susan divorced him and why she may have bitterly regretted that decision emerge. As 'Nocturnal Animals' unfolds Tony/Edward searches for the strength to avenge his wife and daughter's deaths, and Susan gradually comes to understand her ex-husband, as events in the book mirror her own experiences, in ways she never could in real life.

This is a desperately unhappy film, right through to its forlorn conclusions. While not perhaps as worryingly glacial as, say, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, it certainly inhabits the same environment. Susan's gallery is almost comic in its sterility - the opening scene of braying artistic types, ignoring a group of obese naked dancing women, filmed in slow motion and offered up as art, is both distasteful and disorientating. One of the gallery's recent acquisitions is a large work of art with a single word. 'revenge,' painted on it (it's tempting to see this as a portent but to view the novel as Edward's own revenge is far too simplistic). Susan's world is cold and heartless but it's a world in which she has chosen to wallow, allowing her to marry a man in symaptico with the coolness and detachment she has chosen following her divorce from Edward. In interviews Ford has declared Nocturnal Animals a romance which warns about the danger in relationships of giving up too easily. But it's also an extremely internal film about perception and reality - a deconstructionist's wet dream - and it also offers a rather scathing take on the director's former profession.