Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Better Watch Out (US/Australia 2016 - Dir Chris Peckover)

Chris Peckover's witty, deceptive suburban nightmare Better Watch Out (which I saw under its original title, the more prosaic Safe Neighbourhood) is both a Home Alone / Funny Games / Scream mashup and a rather interesting take on the state of US maleness.

Luke (Levi Miller) is a 12 going on 13 year old living a somewhat privileged life. While his well to do parents attend a Christmas party, babysitter Ashley (Olivia de Jonge), who is five years older and on whom Luke has a crush, comes over to watch him. But it seems that everyone's interested in Ashley, including a couple of older boys, and she's made plans to leave town for a while; Luke only has eyes for Ashley, but when his attempts to impress his babysitter by rescuing her from a gun toting home invader fail - a bit of staging involving his friend Garrett as the masked housebreaker - it all threatens to get difficult for the boys. But then the tables are turned.

Part of the twisted pleasure of watching Better Watch Out unfold is that it functions both in a rather meta way but also as an effective thriller in its own right. There's an amorality on display which clashes with the squeaky clean visuals and clean cut cast - very Wes Craven. There's also some clever genre nods (at one point one of the victims gets a paint bucket swung into his face, while another comments that he's been "Home Aloned" and indeed the movie plays like a more sinister version of Chris Columbus's 1990 film, which of course includes that very scene).

But there's something more than simple homage at work. Better Watch Out gradually transforms, after the first half hour of homely snow scenes (although it was actually filmed in Australia) and light comedy, into something increasingly and insidiously darker. While it's difficult to go into more specifics without spoiling the plot (and yes it is a film that you are best knowing nothing about before seeing it) the nastiness of later events is tempered by consistently good acting and a whip smart script; also having the violence occur mostly off screen (surely a nod to movies like Funny Games) makes it a more unsettling watch than I expected.

Levi Miller and Olivia de Jonge make a great cat and mouse pairing; Miller is creepy, chilling but not unlikeable, and de Jonge, with her unattainable girl next door beauty, transforms well into the film's 'final girl.' There are fine supports too from Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton as Luke's parents, and from Ed Oxenbould as the gullible Garrett.

For only a second movie, Chris Peckover's directing is assured and never misses a beat. This is a director to watch and one who has delivered a very cool addition to the Christmas fright flick canon. Go see.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Top 10 Films of 2017

In no particular order, here are my 10 favourite films of 2017:

1. Voodoo (Dir Tommy Costabile)  - one of the first films I saw in 2017, and it knocked me for six. Costabile's shot on DV story of a southern party girl who, through no fault of her own ends up stuck in Hades, channeled the DIY spirits of Ray Dennis Steckler and Jose Mojica Marins. Audacious, outrageous and a whole lot of fun, it showed what can be done with just a few dollars in the bank, a rich imagination and some friends who run a haunted house setup. Oh and Ron Jeremy's in it.

2. Jackie (Dir Pablo Larrain) - an extended study of grief, this was/is Natalie Portman's finest hour. Larrain's film, about the period following the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, excels at saying a lot with just a few filmic brushstrokes, and has (another) stunning soundtrack by Mica Levi. Jackie conveys loss and shock in a way rarely seen in the cinema, and the sense of the world needing to move on while she remains stuck in the moment is heartbreaking.

3. Lilith's Awakening (Dir Monica Demes) - technically a 2016 film, but as I was partly responsible for the movie getting its first UK screening this year, I claim the right to include it as a 2017 best. A beautiful, sinister movie, made under the auspices of the David Lynch Transcendental Meditation MFA in film, this story of vampirism in the mid west of the USA was all about Hoppereque shadows, brooding night shots, and a frightening soundtrack of the natural world. A film that reminds us of the power of black and white cinema. Brooding, dreamlike and very dangerous.

4. War of Words: Battle Rap in the UK (Dir Craig Tuohy, Tom Worth) - this short but very punchy documentary delves into UK's battle rap scene. Filmed over a number of years, it's a very personal account of a truly underground scene that captured the danger and exclusivity of my punk rock days. Funny, very rude and hugely exciting, it deserves a wider distribution.

5. Dunkirk (Dir Christopher Nolan) - after the saccharine excesses of Interstellar, Nolan's stripped down, very personal take on one of the defining moments of the second World War is a bleak delight. From its visceral opening to the soaring, elegiac finale, it's a film that rivals Jackie for conveying shock and desperation. Hans Zimmer's soundtrack becomes another emotional layer in the movie. Sure Nolan gets a bit carried away with himself at times, but there are scenes on Dunkirk which linger in the memory like vivid melancholic dreams.

6. The Big Sick (Dir Michael Showalter) - despite the (fair) comment that the Pakistani women in the film get a pretty raw deal in the character department, this is still a great film, with Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan turning in winning performances. The story of a culture clash couple facing girlfriend-in-an-induced-coma problems, this is consistently funny, life affirming filmmaking. A joy to watch and rewatch.

7. mother! (Dir Darren Aronofsky) - ok Marmite time. Plenty of people dislike this film (it prompted more than a few walkouts at the screening I attended) but for me this was Aronofsky's return to form, a back of a fag packet designed tour de force, a begging letter to the planet to stop fucking over Mother Nature's bounty, and Aronofsky's this-is-how-we-do-things-round-here love letter to new beau Jennifer Lawrence. Insane and intense; dream logic enigmatically captured on film.

8. Bushwick (Dir Cary Murnion, Jonathan Milott) - sadly I saw this on a rather poor quality on line screener, and kick myself for not catching it on its brief big screen run, but this is a terrific faux single shot action movie which recalls the heady days of 80s straight to VHS exploitationers, but without the tracking problems. Perhaps the first Trumpocalypse (and you can have that one for free) movie, it's the story of southern state secessionists waging war on the streets of New York. Breathtaking on a very limited budget, Bushwick starts as it means to go on. Loud, exciting, and very inventive.

9. Battle of the Sexes (Dir Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris) - The most 'straightforward' of my choices, this is superb film making. Brilliantly paced with nuanced performances from Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, Battle of the Sexes balances its intersecting storylines expertly (with a great and typically is-that-her? Andrea Riseborough as King's hard won partner) and some great comic set pieces. Mining a similar stylistic seam to Ron Howard's 2008 movie Frost/Nixon, a very satisfying film.

10. Get Out (Dir Jordan Peele) - writer and actor Peele's directorial debut may slightly unravel towards the end, but this is a smart film, tipping its hat to several genre apple carts while also upsetting them, and having enough elan to succeed in its own right. The story of Chris, an African American guy (Daniel Kaluuya) being introduced to the decidedly odd family (and hired help) of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) starts casually but tightens the knot extremely effectively. It's both funny and unsettling. I screened it to a very racially diverse audience at a recent film festival, and it was the highlight of the weekend.

Honorable mentions: God's Own Country (Dir Francis Lee), Loving (Dir Jeff Nichols), Capture Kill Release (Dir Nick McAnulty), The Belko Experiment (Dir Greg McLean) and Hounds of Love (Dir Ben Young).

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Happy End (France/Austria/Germany 2017: Dir Michael Haneke)

Some critics have suggested that after the emotionally scarring tour de force offerings The White Ribbon and Amour, adulte terrible filmmaker Michael Haneke has let audiences off lightly with his latest, Happy End; I couldn't exactly agree with that; it's just that the trademark enormity of his usual narratives is slightly more occluded this time round.

Perhaps taking its name from Kurt Weill's 1929 opera of the same name about warring families, Happy End is an initially elegant chamber piece revolving around a dynastic group - the Laurent family - who have made their money in construction. Head of the family George has onset dementia and an all absorbing death wish, and the fortunes of the business are slowly transferring to his daughter Anne, who is herself grooming her feckless and self-hating alcoholic son Pierre for a greater role in the company; at the same time she is cementing a relationship with British business man Lawrence Bradshaw, one which has more of the boardroom than the bedroom about it. Anne's brother Thomas, who has remarried after splitting from his vulnerable former partner (who, as the film opens, has just overdosed and is in hospital), is also having a sexting relationship with a musician. Thomas's daughter from that relationship, Eve, is perhaps the centre of the story; she has been moved away from her mother's residence into the Laurent family home, after revealing to the audience a less than angelic disposition (feeding ma's anti-depressants to the family hamster with predictable results - and don't worry, it's a CGI hamster that karks it - at least I think it is).

Most of the drama takes place in the Laurent family home, a slightly out of time baroque manse that speaks of privilege and bourgeois entitlement. The Laurent family feel more like squatters than rightful occupants, and part of the intensity of this film is generated by the growing awareness of the moral corruptness of the family members. Haneke is a master of this technique; letting you put the pieces together very slowly, and when you eventually understand the extent of the rot in the Laurent dynasty, realising that on screen nobody is behaving any differently than when you first met them - there is no dramatic final scene, just more of the same, piled in front of the viewer to stifling effect.

Happy End is a statement about families, the corruption of the innocent, but also tellingly the state of France. Early in the film there is an accident at a Laurent construction site (a fabulous and almost balletic scene where a disaster - the slow collapse of part of the site - occurs slowly and quietly at the edge of the frame, perhaps symbolising the shaky foundations of the Laurent dynasty) which the family manage to overcome reputationally by paying meagre compensation to the accident victim's obviously down at heel family. The film is set in Calais, and the refugee crisis in the country is also referenced, in a typically awkward Haneke moment: Pierre, clearly exasperated to the point of madness by his family's rarefied existence, gatecrashes the wedding of Anne and Lawrence with a group of refugees, to add a degree of reality to the vapidly photographed wedding party. Anne's subsequent apologetic accommodation of the refugees at a spare table is, one assumes, a nod to that country's treatment of immigrants.

Haneke's control of his actors, and the glacially observed details of their lives revealed in often static camera shots, is nothing new for this director. Slightly unconvincingly he frames some of the movie through the lens of a camera phone, and uses a strange CG effect for the scenes where the family are eating on the terrace of the house with the sea as a backdrop. If these techniques, and lengthy scenes of texting taking place, are to add further distance to the already vacuous lives in front of us, well it wasn't necessary. The cast do their jobs well. Haneke regulars Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant play Anne and George respectively (the latter turning in a borderline comedic role which sours during his last reel confession). But the star of the piece is Fantine Harduin as the 12 year old Eve, delivering a deadpan performance with manipulative eyes staring out from under her fringe; her capacity for future evil reminded me of the young future dictator in Brady Corbet's 2015 film The Childhood of a Leader.

So while Happy End may not be vintage Haneke, it's nevertheless a well structured and absorbing two hours, and it's good to see this filmmaker still producing movies for adults that make no concessions to popularity or comfort.

Monday, 13 November 2017

George A. Romero - Between Night and Dawn Box Set

George A. Romero, whose name needs no introduction to fans of fantastic films, died earlier this year at the age of 77. The producer, director, writer and occasional actor was best known for a series of films updating and repackaging the zombie movie for a post Vietnam generation, chronologically developing the themes of the films to offer changing societal interpretations both shocking and wryly amusing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, his first major feature, was and remains arguably one of the most important horror films of the 20th Century. But his output was more diverse than generally given credit for, and the three movies that make up the somewhat erroneously titled 'Between Night and Dawn' box set (it's missing 1978's urban vampire movie Martin because of rights issues) summarise his career between his first feature and 1978's Dawn of the Dead.

There's Always Vanilla (1971). Romero's very much of the time drama with comedy touches is the story of two young Americans that literally bump into each other and begin a relationship which starts off rather sweetly but quickly descends into drudgery and mistrust. He is Chris (Raymond Laine), musician and aspiring writer with a child from a previous relationship whom he visits from time to time, and she is Lynn (Judith Ridley from Night of the Living Dead), disillusioned commercials model, working in an environment she is scornful of and hassled by creeps. The film does a good job of creating a soured free love atmosphere, and downtown Pittsburgh is a suitably dull location, but this is a curio rather than a movie to treasure. In an interview with Romero (one of the many extras in this box set) the director admits that he doesn't think highly of the film because his technical attachment to the movie was somewhat peripheral. But despite its rather scrappy narrative and 'new wave' touches (those quick edits) there's some trademark Romero in here. The film's disassociated characters and moody off kilter framing would become hallmarks of his later movies, and it remains a spiky alternative to some of the films it was influenced by like The Graduate (1967).

Season of the Witch aka Jack's Wife aka Hungry Wives (1972). A previously little seen addition to the suburban witchcraft sub genre, ignited by Rosemary's Baby (1968) and most recently honoured (or sent up, depending on your point of view) in Anna Biller's The Love Witch (2016), Season of the Witch is a slow paced curio with a pronounced feminist agenda (as one imdb wag puts it, women's lib horror). Bored housewife Joan Mitchell leads a life of isolation, her work absorbed husband and fast growing up daughter having little time for her. Joan's female friends are suburban bores, but a visit to local witch Marion reveals to her the possibility of gaining strength, individuality and the attentions of the her daughter's boyfriend via witchcraft.

Romero's not-quite-a-horror movie is told entirely from Joan's perspective, documenting her decline and subsequent rise after discovering the power of witchcraft, but he doesn't quite give her the depth of character for us to identify or sympathise with her. Even the scenes of her husband being violent to her (edited out of the finished film) don't elicit much response in the viewer, aside from noting their casually exploitative nature. But Romero was less interested in characterisation than in putting his characters together and seeing what happens. Season of the Witch's violent finale is ambiguous. Are Joan's murderous actions the ultimate gesture of a woman's new found power, or the inevitable result of the deep psychosis that surrounds her? Whatever else, it's an intriguing watch.

The Crazies (1973) The nihilistic spectre of the Vietnam War looms large in Romero's film about the effects of a biological weapon - a virus called Trixie - released into a small Pennsylvania town. The director gives us no lead in to the events; the first scene, of two young children watching their father in the grip of toxic madness, smashing up their house, and their mother slain in her bed, is all the introduction we're given to the effects of the virus on those contaminated. But anyone expecting the post infection mayhem that Romero would give us in 1978's Dawn of the Dead may be disappointed; The Crazies devotes most of its time to depicting the chaos reigning among authority figures, the inability to strategise faced with the problem, and the rise of self appointed hunters of the infected, good ol' boys in white hazmat suits.

Romero's central point, that the veneer of civilised society is wafer thin, masking a climate of chaos, is relentlessly made, the bleakness of the story enhanced by the mix of amateur and professional actors and lack of narrative drive. It's an angry film - the scenes of people being picked off by rifle in an almost random fashion rekindles memories of the Kent State shootings a few years previously, and the self immolation of a priest, a shocking scene, directly references the same fate of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in his 1963 protest. Yet Romero, shooting here on 35mm, also manages to serve up some pastoral images to complement the viral madness.

The Crazies is a film that has actually improved with age and Arrow's restoration of this and the other two films, together with a host of extras, makes 'Between Night and Dawn' a great box set.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

"We have such sights to show you!" A look back at the Hellraiser film series

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the UK cinema release of Hellraiser. With the tenth film in the series, Judgment, still showing no signs of seeing the light of day, I've been looking back over the previous nine films.

Hellraiser (1987) - being slightly long in the tooth I did in fact attend a screening of this film on the first day of its UK theatrical release. It’s perhaps difficult to recapture in writing the impact of the movie on British cinema-going audiences at the time, particularly when it has since attracted a fair amount of criticism for its supposedly dated effects and overall clunkiness of direction. But at the time there was simply nothing like it being produced in western cinema in terms of gore, and indeed it was one of only a small handful of UK genre films brought out that year.

Unlike some other horror films of the period, this one didn’t focus on a group of teenagers being menaced by an audience friendly wisecracking supernatural villain. There are some gag lines in Hellraiser, but because of the relentlessly dark content they kind of hang in the air like a bad smell.

For those of you who don’t know the storyline, welcome back from Mars. Kirsty, a young girl, reunites with her father Larry and her stepmother Julia who have just moved into a house previously occupied by ultra thrill seeker Frank, Larry’s brother, with whom Julia had a torrid affair. Frank has gone missing but actually he’s trapped under the floorboards in the top floor of the house, a weird shrivelled corpse whose return to human form is triggered by receiving some of Larry’s blood in an accident. Partly revived Frank uses still besotted Julia to supply him with victims to bring him back to rude health, but it’s not long before four Cenobites (explorers from another dimension with a keen awareness of pain and suffering) who have been after Kirsty’s reconstituted uncle, arrive back on the scene keen to drag Frank, Kirsty, and anyone else they can get their talons on, back to their own dimension.

It’s been well documented how this still essentially British production was fiddled with by the US money men, who Americanised the feel (if not the locations) of the film to make it attractive for export. And yes there’s always going to be a ‘what if’ feeling as to the version audiences might have seen if first time feature director (and author of the story on which the film was based) Clive Barker was allowed, and given the spondoolicks to bring the intensity of his original vision to the screen. But there’s still enough low budget depravity going on (despite Christopher Young's stirring string score trying to convince us otherwise) to give us a strong whiff of the original intent.

Overpoweringly this is a film with little or no moral compass at all, where the viewer is given the choice of bad or badder for antagonist. I personally love the scene where the glamorous Julia – brilliantly played by stage and TV actress Clare Higgins - ‘seduces’ a lone, trouserless salesman in the house, with bloody Frank waiting on the sidelines for his human fix. It’s comic and frightening at the same time, and yes some of the rest of the film can stretch credibility as well as narrative coherence, but scenes like this show it to be a milestone in horror film making, far too good to simply laugh off.          

Hellraiser II: Hellbound (1989) - like the original film I saw this on first release at the cinema. In fact I attended the movie’s premiere at the National Film Theatre in London, which included a display of Bob Keen’s dead body dummies which feature in the film. Seeing the not particularly convincing effigies in close up immediately prior to observing them on celluloid wasn’t such a great idea. I remember coming away from the the Tony Randel directed sequel rather unconvinced and decidedly underwhelmed. Whereas the first movie had contained the mayhem in one location and kept things quite tight, Hellbound opened the story out and included elements that seemed to have strayed in from a science fantasy flick.

Time has been kind to Hellbound though. Some of the more extreme footage which was originally excised from the film has been put back (if you’ve seen it, most of the restored scenes are from the self-cutting patient scene) and it all moves at a fair lick, not leaving you much time to wonder what the dickens is going on. Hellbound takes places not long after the end of the first movie. Kirsty is being treated in hospital and her account of Cenobites and strange boxes is treated as hysteria. However Dr Channard (a game performance by Kenneth Cranham) is somewhat of an expert on the box, or the Lament Configuration as it’s formally known. He’s another of these seekers after pleasure and pain, rescuing the mattress on which Julia died at the end of Hellraiser and resurrecting her. Of course the newly reanimated Julia (Higgins again, clearly a glutton for punishment) is the same old double crosser she always was, and before you know it the gates of hell have opened and Dr Channard becomes a Cenobite.

Hellbound also gives us a little backstory on, and more dialogue for Pinhead (something the next sequels were to exploit, with diminishing results) as well as some budget-limited but still inspiring hellscapes, Burton-esque stop-frame animation and a massive Lament Configuration which gives off black light, rising up from an Escher like maze. It's all a bit silly but this time Christopher Young's score matches the action, and most of the actors deliver great performances. There were only 11 horror movies made in 1988, and it may be damning by faint praise, but I think Hellbound is one of the best.   

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) - never was a title more apt. Four years had passed since Hellbound and those of us hoping the Hellraiser franchise had dried up were in for a big disappointment. This was the last of the Hellraiser movies that I saw at the cinema and I forgot about it immediately after viewing. Watching it again all these years later I know why. Hellbound director Tony Randel was originally scheduled to direct it but was taken off the project shortly before shooting began, replaced by Anthony Hickox (who sandwiched this between Waxwork 2: Lost in Time and Warlock: Armageddon which tells you all you need to know).

Hell on Earth opens with JP, an art collecting nightclub owner who acquires a rather grotesque pillar like statue, containing the fused bodies of Pinhead and other unfortunates who got mushed up at the end of the second movie. Oh, and the Lament Configuration. Enter on the spot reporter Joey Summerskill searching for her big scoop. She knows she’s on to a hot story when she sees a guy in hospital get pulled apart by mysterious chains. Taking in homeless Terri (who also witnessed the guy exploding) she gets access to Terri’s boyfriend, the very same JP. Fast forward a bit and Pinhead gets resurrected – well initially only partly, delivering most of his Krueger-esque mocking lines while still stuck in the statue. Mr Head eventually makes it all the way out and stops off at the nightclub, bizarrely converting several of the denizens into Cenobites – CD the DJ becomes a lethal CD dispenser, and another has a bulky VHS camera fused to his bonce. No, me neither.

If all this isn’t dumb enough, Pinhead splits from his inner human (before his conversion he was Captain Eliot Spencer, a soldier seeking pleasure and etc etc) and the two of them have a dramatic last reel tussle. Ashley Lawrence very briefly reprises her role as Kirsty but Doug Bradley as Pinhead is the only other actor from the first two movies in this. Some of the effects are pretty decent but the script doesn’t so much come alive as crawl out of people’s mouths.

I’ll leave the summary of Hell on Earth to film guru Kev Lyons, who wrote of the movie: “the film itself is full of unlikeable people doing obscure things for no discernible reason.”

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) - the fourth film in the Hellraiser franchise, the last to get a theatrical release, was made four years after Hell on Earth. But most of it’s set in 2127 on the Space Station Minos. Yep, that’s right – Pinhead’s in space!

This one was directed by makeup wizard Kevin Yagher - his first feature directing credit - whose company Kevin Yagher Productions must have cleaned up nicely as they provide the bulk of the personnel in the credits. Actually, the on screen credit is one Alan Smithee, which as anyone knows is the name given when the real director either doesn’t want his/her name on the credits or has been removed by the production company. Apparently Yagher took his name off the production when Miramax recut the movie and asked for new scenes to be added which he couldn't commit to contractually. So it was actually finished by an uncredited Joe (Phantoms) Chappelle.

So we’re in space, and some guy has hijacked a space station, keen to complete an experiment the nature of which the audience only gets to understand towards the end of the movie. This guy is the last in line of the family who made the first Lament Configuration, back in, well that bit of the past where they still pomaded their hair. The maker of the box, Lemarchand, is an innocent toymaker working to a commission. The commissioner is not innocent, and he’s the one who uses the box in an arcane ritual summoning the first of the demons, Angelique. From that point on we follow the Lemarchand family through history as they remain linked to the box. The last of the clan (whose name has now changed to Merchant) is the hi-jacker and he feels that he can entomb the Cenobites and the box in the space station while the rest of the crew make a hasty retreat. But to do that he must release them first, which inspires about 25 minutes of that good old B movie standby, walking around in darkness looking for things.

If you’re reading this thinking this sounds like cobblers you’d be right, but in its incredibly cheap way it’s still better than Hell on Earth. The ‘historical’ scenes are as accurate as one of those episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but despite the ludicrous storyline and some pitiful performances, the effects work is way better than average (I noticed that Yagher had effects wunderkind Ed French on his team – a mark of quality) and there is at least an attempt to tell a story. Although apparently Yagher's version majored on the period scenes which Dimension didn't approve of, and Pete Atkins's original script, again changed by Miramax, favoured an anthology style approach, lost in the studio re-edit.

Cast wise Doug Bradley’s back as Pinhead, looking slightly jowlier than his 1987 incarnation – when Pinhead tells Lemarchand that he can’t die, he doesn’t comment that he can, and does, get older. Clive Barker was still directly attached to the franchise at this point (he was filming Lord of Illusions nearby and appeared on set a few times) but this film is mainly about the special effects, and barely passes the 80 minute mark. Very slightly better than expected given its troubled production history.

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) - the new millennium saw the Hellraiser franchise effectively rebooting itself. After the rights were purchased by Miramax for its Dimension company, and because of the nightmare of the previous instalment, the studio decided to go in a very different direction, and actively walk away from the established Hellraiser ideas. Pinhead and the Lament Configuration remain, but pretty much all the other elements are brand new. And to be honest after Bloodline that was probably very sensible, although Clive Barker hated the film. There was also the need to be economical with the production with only a $2 million budget.

In Inferno the publicly Christian director (and scriptwriter) Scott Derrickson has essentially made a modern morality tale, introducing us to Detective Joseph Thorne (played by David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer). Thorne is sort of a dirty cop, thinking nothing of pocketing the contents of a dead man’s wallet and hoovering up the nose candy on those late-night shifts. He’s also a bit of a sex addict, leaving his perfectly nice wife and child in the middle of the night to pick up hookers, whom he pays from the contents of that filched wallet – classy.

But when we first meet him Thorne’s investigating the scene of an apparent ritual murder, and what should be discovered in evidence but a certain box? Puzzling over it the box does its Lament Configuration thing of opening and re-arranging itself, but on this occasion the walls don’t come tumbling down and no army of Cenobites appear. Thorne seems to have had a lucky escape. Except that when he’s back at his desk after his night of sordid passion, he receives a phone call from the prostitute he just left, in the throes of being murdered. And we quickly understand that on Derrickson’s watch the impact of the open box is much more subtle, disturbing and long lasting, with Thorne discovering that a journey to hell can come in many forms.

Provided that you can cope with its deviation in tone (and with Pinhead’s inexplicable conversion to being a kind of moral guardian - although arguably the Cenobites held the moral high ground in the first film as well) Inferno is an interesting movie, although if it feels like a myth-based paranoia  thriller with tacked on Hellraiser bits, that’s because it was – Dimension had the script lying around and decided to make a Hellraiser movie out of it. The Inferno of the title is clearly a nod to Dante.

We spend most of our time with Thorne and his deteriorating mental state, and he’s pretty convincing. The Detective's visions borrow heavily from Adrian Lyne’s woozy Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and are on occasion quite nightmarish. The movie is a little slow at times and the ending rather trite, and the whole thing feels like a big moral slap in the face. But it’s good to see the Cenobites restored to be more threatening and a finale which doesn’t end with ‘good’ triumphing over ‘evil’ and this sets the series up for a very different future.   

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) - continuing with the rebooted approach adopted by Dimension films in the previous entry into the franchise Hellraiser: Inferno (wherein the Hellraiser themes are more hinted at than made explicit) Hellseeker also marks the first director credit for Rick Bota. Bota went on to helm the next two entries as well, Deader and Hellworld, with decreasing success, although apparently he originally favoured a more arthouse direction for the movies, so one wonders how much compromise was involved. A Director of Photography whose work before and since has largely been confined to TV, Bota’s skills are well suited to this shot on video movie which often looks better than its $3 million budget. It’s also a pretty good entry in the series - despite script rewrites on Carl Dupre's original draft - although I would disagree with many critics and fans that reckon this to be as fine as the second movie Hellbound, although I can understand the comparisons, in that both films centre on Pinhead as a flawed character operating under a complex set of rules.

The other thing that won fans over was the return of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty, who was a last minute inclusion on the cast list. Now married, Kirsty and her husband are involved in a car accident at the start of the film, their vehicle plunging into a river. Trevor, her husband, manages to escape, but his wife dies trapped in the car. Investigating police scratch their heads after an investigation of the crash site shows no signs of Kirsty. Trevor increasingly falls under suspicion, particularly when it turns out that both Kirsty’s father and uncle Frank owned considerable fortunes that passed to her on their deaths, and would pass on to Trevor in the event of hers. Worse still, Trevor seems stuck in a world of terrifying visions full of Cenobite-type characters, and seduced at every turn both by strange forms and the more corporeal bodies of his female work manager and a neighbour. Trevor is unable to decipher what’s real and what’s a waking nightmare. Did he really conspire to kill Kirsty, and how real is the vision where he sees himself giving a distraught Kirsty a Lament Configuration box?

Hellseeker is a passable entry in the franchise, very much picking up on the paranoid themes of Inferno, and the end twist, with Kirsty returning to the film, is a welcome return to story strands of the first two movies in the franchise - it's a great revenge movie. Although the script was not originally conceived as a Hellraiser film, those elements feel less shoe-horned into the story than in Inferno. Dean Winters as Trevor is a good small screen actor and his talents are well utilised within the narrow confines of the movie’s production. And yes Doug Bradley does return to Hellseeker (as does the Chatterer Cenobite), his lines significantly more dignified than in previous outings - he even rewrote some in the final confrontation with Lawrence. I’m still not convinced that she is that great an actress, but that’s of little consequence as after this she disappears from the franchise completely. Although as we know from Bloodline Pinhead isn’t finally vanquished until 2127, so never say never!

Hellraiser: Deader (2005) - ok, up to now in my reviews of the Hellraiser franchise I’ve been broadly supportive of the various takes on the basic setup. But my patience is wearing thin with the ghastly Deader, the sixth sequel to the original movie. Doug Bradley was once quoted as saying that the Hellraiser movies were "very much an ideas series...The ideas...bubble under the surface. They rise to the top here and there, but they remain largely subtext." Now if that isn't a quality control get-out-of-jail-free card I don't know what is.

Filmed in Romania, where life (and camera crews) are cheap - it was a popular Dimension location - Deader features intrepid journalist Amy Klein who is sent on an assignment to Bucharest to investigate the cult of the ‘Deader,’ a kind of sex cult that seem to be able to raise people from the dead.  It’s not long before she discovers the Lament Configuration in the hands of a dead girl, and from then on in we’re treated to the now familiar scenes of Klein hallucinating various tableaux of death and depravity. Telling the story in this way only really works if you’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t, but because we’ve witnessed the same setup in both Inferno and Hellseeker all the guesswork is taken away from us.

As Amy Kari Wuhrer is a competent lead, who must have been paid in fags judging by the amount she smokes in the movie. But everyone else is just grumpy window dressing, and Doug Bradley, who finally makes his appearance as Pinhead over two thirds into the movie, looks bored rigid.

Like the previous Dimension Hellraiser films, Deader was based on an existing script which had fright flick elements added to it, but with much less success than either of its two predecessors – it makes no sense and the individual elements are really uninteresting.  Admittedly Bota’s direction makes the best out of some very flimsy material but it’s the first in the series to evoke boredom.

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005) - the third and final of the Rick Bota directed Hellraiser movies, this uses the director's by now trademark 'oh so it was all a dream' storytelling techniques in extremis, ad nauseam, and generally way too much. Filmed in Romania back to back with Deader, this one introduces us to an annoying group of, ahem, teenagers, who we first meet at the funeral of one of their group. It seems that this lot have all been playing an on line game called '' (in a rather self reflexive Blair Witch 2 style move, the game opens with some music from the original film and a line of Pinhead dialogue). Even though it has resulted in a death by suicide, the group eagerly respond to an invitation to a Hellworld player party in an abandoned mansion on the edge of town. Cue endless scenes of supposedly debauched goings on with the cast shouting "Alriiiight!" a lot, until they're gradually offed, Saw sequel style, by someone who might be a Cenobite but actually turns out to be the dead kid's dad, eager for revenge. And it turns out there was no party after all, it was all a collective dream induced by the dad who has drugged them all and buried them alive as punishment. Cordonniers, n'est pas? 

Hellworld once again was based on an existing script, but this time the 'Hellraiser' elements are so tenuous as to be totally superfluous (Pinhead drifts in and out looking even more cheesed off than in Deader) and the original story is so poor it retains absolutely no interest for the viewer. One or two inventive deaths and the presence of Lance Henriksen as avenging dad cannot make up for the paucity of ideas and generally tired air of the whole thing.  While it is admittedly impressive to look at, belying its obviously slender budget, it's a poor swansong for Doug Bradley who wisely chose not to return for any of the future films in the series - to date anyhow. After completing all three of his Hellraiser movies, director Bota would subsequently sensibly confine himself to TV work

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011) - a further six years elapsed before someone had the cojones to resurrect the franchise, and the honour went to Victor Garcia, director of the lamentable Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007), a sequel of sorts to the already unwanted 1999 remake of the original 1959 movie. Ghastly as that film was, it's a minor classic next to Revelations. An additional fact tells us that the story for this one was written by Gary J. Tunnicliffe, best known as make up supervisor on all the Hellraiser movies since Hell on Earth. Nice career change Gary! To be fair he had also written the stories for several of the Hellraiser spin off short films, but space and my mental health forbids their coverage in this article.

So what's this one all about? Two male friends, Steven and Nico, venture out into Mexico, one seeking extreme thrills, the other tagging along in order to get laid. Nico is the dangerous one (he kills a prostitute 'by accident' in a toilet) and in the course of his pleasure seeking acquires 'the box.' Before you know it, he's been stripped of his skin by Pinhead, requiring supplies of fresh girls, supplied by Steven, to help him regain his human form. All this of course directly references the events in the first and second films, but without any of the motivation or logic. Fed up with the time it takes to do this, he kills Steven and borrows his skin, walking back into the bosom of his family. Having been missing for some years they are initially pleased to see him home, but then start to smell a rat as 'Steven' goes all home invasion on their asses. This is of course the first of the Hellraiser movies not to feature Doug Bradley - his stand in/replacement looks a bit like Andy Bell of Erasure fame, only with more nails in his face. Apparently the film was made by Dimension in order contractually to retain the rights to the characters, which is why it feels lazily made, poorly acted and barely 75 minutes long.

So thirty years later, what will become of the tenth entry in the series, Hellraiser: Judgment? Written and directed by Gary J Tunnicliffe, the film has apparently been completed, but has not to date seen the light of day. Apparently Dimension were originally considering a complete reboot, but decided on a sequel instead. Form an orderly queue horror hounds.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Hellriser (UK 2017: Dir Steve Lawson)

Think that only the big movie companies are entitled to develop lucrative 'universe' concepts to rake in the moolah? Think again - arguably Hellriser has the distinction of being the second film in the cheapest franchise ever, with the promise of more to come courtesy of its ghostly pre-end credit lament. You have to admire the sheer pluck of director, writer, producer and caterer Steve Lawson in bringing back the lead character from his last movie The Haunting of Annie Dyer for his latest romp.

But let's go back a bit. In 2014 Lawson made a film called Nocturnal Activity. An interesting title, with nods to both soft porn and of course the Paranormal Activity films, it was his third feature, following on from the equally micro budget martial arts thriller Insiders (2002) and the distinctly Robocop sounding The Silencer (2007). Nocturnal Activity was the story of Annie, a woman who becomes possessed after moving into a new flat, her nightly visitations monitored by a psychic researcher; Dyer ends up held by the police on a murder charge. Released for the American market in 2015, Nocturnal Activity didn't fare very well. Keen to recoup some money Lawson recut and repackaged the movie as The Haunting of Annie Dyer and it got a straight to DVD release in the UK in 2016, leaving in the American accented ADR voices of lead actresses Raven Lee (of which more later) and Evie Nightingale, as originally intended for the US market.

On a budget of about £1,200 Lawson, who gives himself a number of pseudonyms in the credits to suggest a bigger technical cast, does pretty much everything in this film, except act. With the exception of a girl on girl dream sequence it is clear that no two actors share the same space when interacting with each other - a filming technique Lawson prefers for editing purposes. Most of it's filmed in a very cramped flat, and such effects as exist are fairly shonky post production CGI. And yet strangely it works. Another critic has suggested that Lawson is a Fred Olen Ray for these shores, but while there's truth in that there's also something rather George Kuchar-like in the campy acting, domestic settings and the overall loucheness of the production. A lot of that comparison is down to the character of Annie, played by former model Raven Lee; she's kind of fascinating. With her real voice overdubbed by someone who sounds half American, half Serbo Croat, her natural plus sized figure (a nice two fingers up to the parade of pneumatic clones who normally populate movies like this) and her insane eyebrows, she's a voluptuous enigma.

Following this film Lawson made Killer/Saurus (a cut price Jurassic Park but with a proper non CGI puppet T. Rex like what they used to have) and the excellent Survival Instinct, which I was lucky to see on one of its rare big screen outings at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.

But for his latest movie Annie's back in Hellriser, a slightly more ambitious film than The Haunting of Annie Dyer. Also returning from the first film is the character of hard bitten Detective Locke, played effectively by Steve Dolton, a Lawson regular and a bonus for any low budget film, his performance rising above Hellriser's economic constraints. Locke is introduced to a new partner, career pursuing Detective Keyes (Keyes, Locke, geddit?) played by Charlie Bond. Keyes is IT savvy whereas Locke is a dinosaur - they make a watchable pair. Locke is investigating a potential serial killer (seven bodies and counting), the trail leading to an abandoned asylum recently acquired by Dr Unnseine, who has been conducting some rather distasteful medical research. His latest patient is one Annie Dyer, incarcerated following events in the first film, Dyer it seems is the key to Unnseine's real purpose, to unlock the gates of hell. Locke works out that all roads lead to Dyer, but he still refuses to believe, much as he did in the first film, that there's any demonic explanation for what's happening. But yes readers, he's about to be proved wrong.

Hellriser probably didn't cost that much more than Annie Dyer, but it's a lot more ambitious - admittedly this is a relative term. The lighting concept is pretty good (especially the final scenes) and the classic 80s B movie elements (shower scene, dismembered limbs, gag script etc) are all to the fore. Dolton is reliable as ever, there's a laconic performance from Nathan Head as a morgue technician, and Raven Lee is, shall we say, a rather game girl (Lawson must be quite a persuasive director, which is probably a rather loaded comment to make in these post Weinstein times - I'm sure he's a lovely man).

As opposed to Andrew Jones, the other UK film maker whose output eclipses Lawson's but whose pieces tend to be more thoughtful and slow moving, Lawson's films are fun, unpretentious and worth catching. Hellriser is no classic but it's been made with passion, and if you listen to the director's commentary on the DVD, why it just make you feel that it's worth trying to make a movie of your own. And if you do, send it to me why don'cha?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

New Films Round Up #11 - Reviews of A Dark Song (Ireland/ Wales 2016), The Terror of Hallow's Eve (USA 2017), It Stains the Sands Red (USA 2016), The Evil Within (USA 2017), and Revelator (USA 2017)

A Dark Song (Ireland/Wales 2016: Dir Liam Gavin) Wow, what a fascinating, bold and arresting film this is. First time feature director Gavin's slow burn two hander has Sophia, a bereaved woman renting a large house in the remote countryside and engaging Joseph, an occultist, to undertake a ritual that will enable the woman to speak again with her dead little boy.

As many critics have commented, this is perhaps the first commercial film to treat the occult seriously - there's dark comedy in there, but it's character, not subject driven. And whereas previous movies of this type have rather abbreviated the spell making processes - Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out (1967) is a good example - Gavin's film stretches the time taken - but not the viewer's patience - for the summoning to almost Tarr-esque proportions.

But it's never boring, firstly because the detail shown is so fascinating (a lot of research has gone into this, but the learning is not conveyed in a showy way). Also, and perhaps more importantly, the performances of the two leads keep everything very grounded. Catherine Walker as Sophia is the epitome of hope against hope; her frustration as the spell casting process drags on for weeks, then months without any signs of a visitation is palpable, as is the audience's when it realises that she has not been truthful in her motivations - she is ultimately caught between doubt and acceptance, and the need to put all of her trust into the occultist Joseph, played by Steve Oram. As those who have seen Sightseers (2012) or Aaaaaaaah! (2015) will attest, Oram is one of the most interesting figures working in British cinema today, and his role as Joseph, truculent, knowledgeable, unscrupulous but also sincere, is a brilliant one, full of conviction and nuances.

When the visitation does come, it's bravely handled. Although not to show anything would surely shortchange the audience and not repay their patience thus far, the depiction of the angels and demons promised by Joseph throughout the ritual could have been less plausible without the intense and credible build up. I completely bought into the whole package of the film, from the brooding, still camerawork of Cathal Watters, picking up the passing of seasons outside the house almost as an afterthought, to Ray Harman's atonal soundtrack. A very good film indeed.

The Terror of Hallow's Eve (USA 2017: Dir Todd Tucker) It's 1981 - Timothy is a shy retiring lad, obsessed with monster movies, an excellent creature artist who lives with his mother following his parents’ break up. Timothy is going through a difficult adolescence, not helped by being the object of bullying by the town’s local tearaways, led by thuggish Brian, and having a crush on Brian’s girlfriend April. After a particularly vicious beating up, Tim discovers ‘The Book of Halloween’ in the attic of his house. Reading aloud from it, he wishes his bullies to be scared to death. And then the fun begins, as his desire is realised, courtesy of a weird creature called The Trickster whom he has inadvertently summoned.

Although the Halloween holiday feel is a little lacking in a film set between 30th and 31st October, as if to make up for it the spirit of John Carpenter is all over this movie (the director’s trademark font for the titles, the use of Haddonfield as a place name for the local asylum, even the use of one of Carpenter’s ‘Lost Themes’ on the soundtrack). But Todd Tucker’s second feature (supposedly ‘based on true events’) plays more like an extended version of a fantasy-themed episode from the old ‘Tales from the Darkside’ series. As you might expect from someone with Tucker’s extensive special effects CV The Terror of Hallow’s Eve is relentlessly inventive even when it stops making any sense; The Trickster is a particularly vivid creation, a kind of Gollum character crossed with The Crypt Keeper (excellently played by Guillermo del Toro’s go to creature actor Doug Jones), and the rest of the pleasantly non-CGI and rather colourful effects are also well rendered, if not actually scary. 

Where the film lets itself down is the end coda, an unnecessary bit of exposition which only seems to have been included to set the scene for a sequel (and while I’m not generally a fan of this sort of thing, I would like to see The Trickster in action again). Caleb Thomas’s performance as Tim (“Don’t call me Timmy!”) is also a little ragged round the edges – I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be shy or mildly autistic. But for the most part The Terror of Hallow’s Eve is an old school wild ride, a beer and popcorn Friday nighter, no more, no less.

It Stains the Sands Red (USA 2016: Dir Colin Minihan) I loved this funny and rather touching take on the zombie movie, its intimate examination of human and inhuman very much a product of these post The Walking Dead times.

Molly (brilliantly and sympathetically played by Brittany Allen) is the blowsy girlfriend of wannabe gangsta Nick; they are driving away from zombie infested Las Vegas, aiming to reach a remote airfield where they can hook up with their friends and get away from the mayhem. When their car gets stuck in the sand, an approaching zombie - who Molly later nicknames 'Smalls' (short for 'small dick') munches on Nick, and Molly is forced to escape on foot into the heart of the Nevada desert, with 'Smalls' following.

At this point you either expect Molly to cop it in a lead-character-gets-it-in-the-first-half-hour-didn't-see-that-coming moment, or for the drama to open out with more zombies, more action, more warfare. Neither of these things happen. Instead there is a developing relationship (of sorts) between Molly and the slowly pursuing 'Smalls' which acts as a narrative pivot to understand Molly's character and back story. Loaded with gentle comedy, It Stains the Sands Red becomes a bizarre story of friendship which has its roots in odd couple buddy movies, but it's the transformation of Molly from tough cookie to fully rounded and responsible human that is this movie's big selling point. The Nevada desert, luminously photographed by Clayton Moore, looks both stunning and relentlessly bleak, and is an appropriate backdrop to the developing story of woman and zombie. Great fun, with a truly uplifting final reel, I heartily recommend this.

The Evil Within (USA 2017: Dir Andrew Getty) Even without the tragic story of the death of director Getty this would have been a remarkable film. Opinions vary on how long the thing took to make - 15 years is the most favoured guess - and The Evil Within, which started life as The Storyteller, was finished posthumously by editor Michael Lucceri.

The other most noteworthy things about the film are the central performance from Frederick Koehler as Dennis, a disabled boy who is plagued by troubling dreams (although because of the length of time to film it, Koehler ranges from teenager to man from scene to scene) and the dreams themselves, featuring some of the most nightmarish images seen by this reviewer in some years.

Dennis lives with his brother John (Sean Patrick Flanery), whose girlfriend Lydia (Dina Myer) wants John to hospitalise Dennis so they can have their own life together. For some inexplicable reason John buys Dennis a hideous antique mirror. Dennis is freaked out by this as he has already seen the mirror in a dream. The mirror contains a demon, who sometimes materialises in the familiar shape of Michael Berryman and sometimes as Dennis himself. Evil Dennis taunts good Dennis that the only way for the boy to become well is to kill things. Cats, random people, then those closest to him.

Despite Getty's singular vision - the film was actually finished in 2008 but the director spent the next seven years obsessively re-editing the thing until his untimely death in 2015 at the age of 47 - this is an incredibly uneven and rather depressing movie, which probably says more about the director's state of mind than offering up a bona fide horror film. It has moments of genius - the scene in the singing restaurant will not leave my mind for some reason, and some of the camerawork as it travelks through the mirror is breathtaking. But it's a hard watch simply because of its disjointedness. Getty seems to forget character motivations, so his cast constantly act in odd ways, and its difficult to get a handle on quite what's going on. Although it should be remembered that the guy wasn't a director, just a man with a film in him and a shedload of money to spend on it (Andrew was a member of the Getty oil dynasty). Bizarre and seriously flawed then, but absolutely worth watching.  

Revelator (USA 2017: Dir J. Van Auken) Ever since Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people!” to a distinctly less than corporeal Bruce Willis in 1999’s The Sixth Sense, there’s been a thin but steady stream of films dealing with visions of the dead in a relatively prosaic manner; recent examples include Adrien Brody in Backtrack and Nicolas Cage in Pay the Ghost (2015) and 2016’s We Go On. To this list can now be added the debut feature written and directed by J. Van Auken, Revelator. John Dunning is a rather mercenary but genuine psychic who has made his living cosying up to wealthy benefactors, and taking his share of their estates in return for helping them to renew their acquaintance with departed loved ones. He’s also popping prescription pills at an alarming rate, in part to deal with the relentless tide of spirit forms in front of his eyes, but also to stave off the memory of his wife, who died in a boating accident.

His latest bequest is from a woman who left Dunning an entire island in her will. Her family are less than pleased because the land mass’s natural resources produce a healthy profit, but John is determined to take what’s his, feeling that the island will be a great place for him to live in solitude untroubled by his ghostly visions, and be closer to his departed partner with whom, for all his skills, he’s unable to contact. Into this rather tangled web walks listicle journalist Valerie, keen to pick up on his story and re-insert herself back into proper journalism via a juicy exposé of John’s talents. Valerie and John team up in a rather awkward symbiotic partnership to investigate the death of another member of the family, who has died under mysterious circumstances. And then things get really complicated.

Van Auken’s film is almost Chandler-esque in its narrative twists and turns. Nobody is who they’re supposed to be, and the longer the movie plays out, the less the supernatural elements are of importance. The film is shot in such washed out pastel colours that the sight of a bright amber plastic pill bottle comes as something of a shock, and the whole thing has a tired, scruffy, aimless feel to it which perfectly matches Dunning’s persona.

Although there are some dark comedic moments in Revelator, kiss goodbye to any thoughts of lightheartedness – this is sombre stuff. There’s also no chance of Valerie and John becoming an item – he’s too much of a mess and there are hints that she plays for the other team anyway. Ultimately the story becomes too convoluted to involve, bogged down by a funereal pace (pun intended) and a rather one – note set of performances. It’s a film I’d probably have to watch a second time to really understand (again like Chandler’s stories) but it’s not appealing enough to make that happen anytime soon. A shame, as it’s beautifully shot (Van Auken’s cinematography training clearly helpful here) but someone should have paid more attention to the sound design, which is uneven, with a soundtrack that wants to be moody but is mainly dirge-like.

The Reviews of The Terror of Hallow's Eve and Revelator were originally published on 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

mother! (US 2017: Dir Darren Aronofsky)

In Darren Aronofsky’s deeply allegorical and stunning mother! Jennifer Lawrence is a young woman who has moved into a huge ‘fixer upper’ house in an unspecified location with her poet husband Javier Bardem – in the credits she is ‘mother’ and he is, well, ‘HIM.’ She’s done all the fixer-upping following a fire which has previously devastated the house, while he has been struggling with writer’s block, hasn’t written a thing for months, and seems rather distant from her.

Into this rather imbalanced and awkward setup an older guy (Ed Harris) arrives at the front door, mistakenly thinking it’s a B&B. Bardem quickly befriends the man and invites him to stay overnight – the first in a series of unwanted occupations of the house (at least by Lawrence’s character) that drive the drama of the film - and soon Harris is joined by his drunken wife (a superb, witty performance by Michelle Pfeiffer – so good to have her back on our screens again) and later their bickering sons.

Tragedy strikes when one of the offspring is seriously wounded following a fight about Harris's will (he is dying and has actually come to the house to meet ‘HIM’ being a big fan of the poet’s work). Harris subsequently becomes ill and the party, including Bardem, leave ‘mother’ alone to go in search of a hospital. Lawrence is left to mop up the blood from the fight and discovers a strange, almost fleshlike bleeding hole in the floor. Soon Bardem returns, not on his own but with a party of mourners; the wounded son has died. At Lawrence’s insistence the party are asked to leave the house, which seems to precipitate a defrosting between husband and wife – as a result ‘mother’ becomes, er, an expectant mother and Bardem's character starts writing again. But as Lawrence nears full term, the poet’s latest work, clearly the best thing he’s ever produced, draws a growing crowd of fans to the house to meet their hero. And then the third house invasion begins.

It’s probably best to watch mother! as a connected series of extended dream sequences, faithfully recreating the (il)logic and anxiety of the nightmare. Bunuel’s 1962 movie The Exterminating Angel, with its bourgeois dinner party guests reverting to their base instincts after being mysteriously trapped in a house, is clearly an influence. Lawrence’s inability as a pregnant woman to influence her charming but evasive husband has more than a whiff of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse in Polanski’s 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby; the house as a living breathing prison conjures visions of the same director’s Repulsion (1965) and the paranoia levels evoke that film and also his The Tenant (1976).

Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky's mother!
The descent into hell of the final reel is a bold move, and its grand guignol touches (actually great big splashes) are excessive but accommodated because of the rising sense of tension and unease generated by the film’s previous ninety minutes. Nothing in mother! is an easy watch but the final twenty minutes is, even by Aranofsky’s standards, a macabre tour de force. Lawrence and Bardem are both fantastic in their roles – much of the movie shoots in close up, showing both the differences in age and disposition between the two actors. It’s extraordinary stuff, but I was unsure of how seriously to take everything. After all, what to make of a swishing knife sound accompanying the addition of the exclamation mark to the movie’s title at the start of the film?

Although the film can be read as the study of a marriage in crisis (and also therefore biographically via what we know of Aronofsky's personal life), in terms of what lies behind the movie’s more opaque allegorical tendencies, two clues give us a possible interpretation. One is an interview in Sight and Sound magazine, where the director hints about his continuing interest in the environment, what we’re doing to it and the impact of its neglect (and lest we forget his previous film Noah was his attempt to take a non-religious view of the same subject). The other is a poem, punted out as part of the teaser publicity for the film, called mother’s prayer. This has been adapted by feminist writer Rebecca Solnit and is an entreaty to mother nature, worshipping the pattern of the seasons and asking for deliverance ‘from wanton consumption’ of the earth.  So it’s possible to view the birth/rebirth/regeneration themes of the movie as analogous to the cycles of nature, with the house as our valuable planet, and the unwelcome occupants the wanton consumers. Or something.

mother! is an extraordinary film however you approach it. It’s certainly a career best for Jennifer Lawrence and arguably Darren Aranofsky too. It’s a wild ride, bizarrely playful but deadly serious – a real force of nature. 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Shadows of Sphere - a look back at the the films of the Phantasm franchise

With the release last year of the fifth and possibly final movie in the Phantasm film sequence, Ravager, I thought it was time to revisit cinema's oddest franchise.

Phantasm (USA 1979: Dir Don Coscarelli) Coscarelli was 23 when he made Phantasm. The director was a big fan of horror, fantasy and science fiction films, and although his previous works (both from 1976 - drama Jim, the World's Greatest, and comedy Kenny & Company) hadn't shown any traces of these influences, they dealt with the subject of childhood, a theme which was central to his 1979 movie.

Watched today, Phantasm still feels like it was beamed down from another planet - possibly the world from which The Tall Man originates. It's a weird, confused, slightly empty film (although these aren't necessarily criticisms) reduced from a much longer (reportedly three hour) first cut to the skewed and odd ninety minutes of the released version (although some of that footage would resurface in the fourth instalment). Phantasm introduces us to Jody (Bill Thornbury), his younger brother Mike (A.Michael Baldwin), and guitar picking ice cream salesman Reggie (Reggie Bannister). Jody has returned to the town of Morningside, putting his rock and roll career on hold to look after his younger sibling following the untimely death of their parents. The audience doesn't really see any of this town, beyond a local bar/diner, a funeral home and the cemetery, the three  locations in which all the action takes place.

Mike's inadvertent sighting of a strange cadaverous figure turns out to be The Tall Man, played convincingly by the late Angus Scrimm (real name Lawrence Guy, who also had another career as a writer of liner notes for record albums). He's first seen impressively manoeuvring a large coffin into a waiting hearse single handed, and it's one of the great introductions in modern horror films (apparently Coscarelli hit on the idea of the character while watching Scrimm clowning around with a young boy, making scary faces at him). The discovery leads Mike to investigate the local funeral parlour, leading to the discovery of some small, brown robed dwarfs and later a murderous flying sphere (designed by Willard Green). It turns out that The Tall Man is from another planet, harvesting the bodies of the dead from the cemetery, reducing them in size (the dwarfs) and exporting them back to his planet via a portal. Young Mike and friends Reggie and Jody (who are both musicians in real life and manage to fit in a quick jam before the action starts) must try and thwart The Tall Man's plans before he can clean out the whole of Morningside cemetery.

Phantasm was cheaply made with a budget of around $800,000 (Coscarelli's mother was on make up duties) but boasts great atmosphere and a superb analogue soundtrack by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave (sampled by DJ Shadow on his landmark album Endtroducing). As a film it's aged remarkably well; it's perhaps not supposed to make sense, but is filled with interesting details and the cast play it very straight, with great camaraderie between the three leads.

Phantasm II (USA 1988: Dir Don Coscarelli) At the end of Phantasm, things don't look good - Jody has died in a car accident caused by The Tall Man, and Mike has been pulled through a mirror, presumably to meet his death. Phantasm II, made nearly ten years after the original movie, reprises the closing scene but lets Mike survive. Now grown up, and played by a different actor (the original Mike - A. Michael Baldwin - auditioned but didn't get the part, which was given instead to James LeGros, although apparently it was a role for which Brad Pitt originally screen tested!), he has been released from a psychiatric hospital where he's been staying, convincing the powers that be that his recent experiences are all in his mind, although we know different. Mike seems to have developed a psychic ability to communicate with old flame Liz - in his visions she's linked to The Tall Man. Hooking up with Reggie, who also survived the first movie, the two old friends take a car and track the lofty alien across the US, finally cornering him in a town called Perigord in a fight to the death. But whose?

Coscarelli had never intended to make a sequel to Phantasm. After the first movie he'd spent some time directing and then recovering from the critical backlash arising from his 1982 film The Beastmaster, a film received so poorly that author Andre Norton, on whose book the film was based, had her name removed from the credits. However when Tom Pollock became Chairman of Universal Pictures in 1986, as a lifelong horror movie fan he was keen to pump some fresh blood into movie franchises that had run aground, like the Evil Dead and Childs Play films. Offered a substantial budget (the highest for any Phantasm film but peanuts by Universal's standards) Phantasm II was born.

Reggie Yates and Angus Scrimm both reprised their roles as Reggie and The Tall Man respectively, the former looking more advanced in years befitting the time gap between movies; Scrimm, 52 at the age of filming but made to look older, is his enigmatic self - there's a scene towards the end where an entire house in front of which he's standing bursts into flames (courtesy of a Vietnam special forces team drafted in for the detonation) and does not bat an eyelid - that's acting. Coscarelli had clearly been paying attention to trends in films between 1979 and 1988, as Phantasm II is chock full of influences from other movies: the obsession with weaponry from Aliens (1986); tooled up brothers in arms buddy movies like Lethal Weapon (1986); and America photographed at 'magic hour' (Top Gun and Stand By Me - 1986).

The director was also able to spend some decent money on special effects, with 1980s wunderkind Mark Shostrom doing some great things with latex; even the spheres have multiplied (all designed and operated this time by Steve Patino, although his credit in the film was significantly reduced following run ins with the producer), becoming more aggressive and flying more convincingly. But unlike many sequels the additional budget doesn't ruin Phantasm II - it's a different film from the first one, more confident in its directorial choices and with better set pieces; I liked the path of destruction that Reggie and Mike witness as they pass through towns previously visited by The Tall Man where he has literally sucked the life from them. Credit for the improved look of the film is down to cinematographer Daryn Okada, an early credit for someone who went on to be DoP for movies like Lake Placid (1999) and Just Like Heaven (2005). But there's also a certain reservedness about the movie, perhaps caused by the constant presence at the shoot of the Universal 'men in suits.' Bannister commented in an interview that "...they were always kind of hanging around to make sure the movie turned out the way they wanted it, and that made for a different kind of vibe on the set.We didn't feel as much like rebels out on the edge."

Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (USA 1994: Dir Don Coscarelli) Fans would have to wait a further six years for the next instalment in the franchise, the first of the films designed more for the home market than a theatrical release. Coscarelli has commented that as the numbers of the Phantasm films rose, so the budgets fell ($2.5 million for this one) but the director surprises with new levels of inventiveness and even some comedy (which divided some of the franchise's hardcore audience at the time), creating a dreamlike chain of events more reminiscent of films from the latter end of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

Following a pattern set up by the last movie, we're dumped straight back where II left off: Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, the original Mike, now returning to the fold, but seamlessly picking up the reins from James Le Gros, albeit making the part less gung ho than his youthful version) and Reggie (Bannister) survive a hearse crash, although Liz doesn't make it; The Tall Man carrying her severed head around makes that pretty clear. Mike ends up in hospital where he has visions of his dead brother Jody (a returning Bill Thornbury) whose brain and soul resides in one of the spheres (III considerably expands the spheres' features - as well as being a repository for the brains of the cowled zombies, Jody sphere also acts as a laser tool and primitive GPS). Defying an attack from a zombified nurse, Mike and Reggie flee the hospital, guided by Jody who morphs between sphere and 'human' forms with amazing regularity. Along the way they pick up 11 year old Tim (Kevin Connors), whose parents were killed by The Tall Man but who is more than able to look after himself, Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry), a gun and nunchaku toting gal that somehow manages to resist all attempts by Reggie to jump her bones, and three lowlifes who are quickly despatched but who turn up later as gurning zombies in the service of Scrimm's character.

Meanwhile Mike has been abducted by The Tall Man and the rest of the crew all end up in a huge mausoleum, where Mike is being held, and which is the scene for the final battle - well the final battle in this film anyway. The Tall Man is defeated but his indestructibility is now legendary, and the team are possibly too late to save Mike, who remains alive...but with a sphere implanted in his head. And what's going to happen to Timmy, snatched through a mirror just like Mike at the end of the first movie?

"Don't believe everything you see. Seeing's easy...understanding takes a little more time," advises the spectral and newly gnomic Jody at one point in the film. And Phantasm III pretty much lives up to that line - it's a hoot from start to finish. Quite happy to tack on any bits of exposition that work at the time, its freewheeling spirit is a triumph of ingenuity over budget. There are several staggering set pieces including some great car stunts courtesy of stuntman Bob Ivy, while the retention of many of the actors from the first movie makes it feel like a family business, although Angus Scrimm plays The Tall Man even more intensely here - and gets more to do as well. Mark Shostrom's quirky effects always deliver, and the mausoleum setting is terrific - the Compton location in Los Angeles was apparently discovered by Bannister, and his prize for securing the facility for the three week shoot was to put Reggie centre stage in the movie, a gamble which pays off as it's this film where Bannister really comes into his own as a character. Too bad that we don't see Tim again after this one, and Rocky got to drive off into the sunset (until the end of Ravager), but at least they both survived to tell the tale.

Phantasm IV - Oblivion (USA  1998: Dir Don Coscarelli) Interviewed on set at the time of making Phantasm III, Coscarelli said, of the possibility of a sequel, "I'll be honest with you - I don't have a fourth or fifth one in mind, so if you ever interview me on the set of Phantasm IV or V, I'll tell you I concocted the story for strictly commercial reasons." Four years later the director was in a slightly more accommodating frame of mind: "My plan is to answer all the questions that have been left unanswered for so long about the Phantasm world," he declared, deciding to "pretty much finish off the story arc of Phantasm" and promising that "the basic core story of Mike, Reggie and The Tall Man is all going to come to a head in this one." Well thank goodness for that. However...

The movie started off life as Phantasm: 1999, co-scripted by Roger (Pulp Fiction) Avery, and budgeted at about $8 million. This proved unworkable, so Coscarelli re-worked the story with a much lower budget in mind - around $650,000, achieved through Japanese , German and Spanish financing. He had to make some hard decisions about how he was going to achieve those aims while making, as he termed it, "A love letter to the fans." The first was to reunite the original cast again, so nearly twenty years after the first film, Thornbury, Baldwin, Bannister and Scrimm are back in their respective roles. The second was to depart from the linear narrative of the last two films and attempt to achieve the dream state approach of the original movie. For much of Oblivion the audience isn't sure what if anything is real. Coscarelli compounds this by the inclusion of unused scenes from the first film slotted in to emphasise the time travelling storyline, in which Mike moves back and forth in time, using the portal established in the first Phantasm, to discover the Civil War origins of The Tall Man and in so doing eradicate him before his transformation from kindly old mortician - Jebediah Morningside - to the crazed body shrinking alien that we all know and love. One of the previously unused scenes features The Tall Man being lynched, the inclusion of which would have been pleasing to Scrimm because of the severe discomfort he experienced being fitted with a body brace to allow the sequence to be filmed. As III was Reggie's movie, IV is largely Mike's and to some extent The Tall Man's - Mike's still a bit of a puppet but at least he fights back a bit in this one, despite his cranial addition. It's fascinating comparing footage from the 1979 film - the Phantasm movies have all been concerned with the American way of death and the process of ageing, and the retention of the original cast gives us a strong visual reminder of that process at work.

We left Phantasm III with Mike reeling from the effects of having one of the spheres surgically inserted into his cranium, and in IV it is clear that not only is this a device used by The Tall Man to control him, but that Scrimm's character wants to use the sphere to show Mike visions of different timescales and dimensions.

Phantasm IV is, like its two predecessors, a great road movie, deploying its Death Valley locations (reportedly making it a very tough shoot, particularly for Scrimm) to great effect, and there's a return to the imposing Compton CA mausoleum utilised in III.  It's lighter on set pieces, although stunt man Bob Ivy returns with some spectacular vehicular explosions and a great fight in a moving car involving Reggie and a demonic cop. Scrimm once again is his old imposing self, clearly relishing the chance to play good and bad roles (incidentally the shop where Scrimm was fitted for his outfit, the Western Costume Co, was the same place that provided him with the clothes for his first film role in 1951 as Abraham Lincoln, for Encyclopaedia Britannica). The effects are more sparingly used, although with the budget Coscarelli was lucky to have the use of Mark Shostrom and KNB crew from II, who helped out on this more from a sense of loyalty than for the paycheck.

Phantasm Ravager (USA 2016: Dir David Hartman) "Unless we can someday get Phantasm 1999 funded, I'm convinced this is going to be it for the franchise," said Coscarelli while putting Oblivion to bed. Sound familiar? Talk of a sequel to Oblivion had been reported since 2004, and the film was actually completed in 2014, but had to wait two years for a distributor. In terms of making the movie, although by all accounts guided at every step of the way by 62 year old director of the previous four films, and although he produced the first draft of the screenplay, Coscarelli handed over the reins of the fifth instalment to David Hartman, whose CV had previously largely comprised animated kids' TV shows, and who he met while making the brilliant Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002.

Phantasm Ravager (the 'V' in the title is of course the roman numeral for '5' like the 'IV' in Oblivion and the 'III' in...OK it doesn't always work) in keeping with the previous sequels kicks off where Oblivion finished - albeit 18 years later, ten of which were used to make the thing in between other projects - and plot-wise unless you've seen at least III and Oblivion, you're going to be scratching your head for much of the time. Even more abstract than the previous film, Ravager is more like a meditation on death and fate than anything else, tinged with sadness both cinematically and in real life - Angus Scrimm died very shortly after the completion of shooting at the age of 89, and the family-close cast and crew of the film lost a true friend.

As Ravager opens we meet Reggie, still searching for Mike and trying to avoid The Tall Man, the aggressive brown dwarfs and the ubiquitous flying spheres, with whom he does battle almost immediately. But we can't trust what we see; Ravager sets up the possibility that everything we've witnessed before might have been in Reggie's mind, for in the next scene he is sitting in a wheelchair in the grounds of a hospital, with Mike at his side, breaking the news that Reggie has been diagnosed with early stage dementia. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five, Reggie time travels back and forth: we see him in a hospital bed, next to an old, seemingly near to death Jebediah Morningside (indicating that he's back in the nineteenth century) who tells him prophetically "this body is almost finished"; we also get glimpses of a red tinted future age where the Tall Man has decimated America, now ruled by huge silver spheres which patrol the sky. When Reggie is finally captured by The Tall Man a group of rebels frees him - they include Mike and later Jody, who together wage war against the spheres and their lanky master; meanwhile back at the hospital Reggie seems to be dying, with Jody (apparently no longer dead) and Mike at his side.

Watching Ravager, with scenes from all the previous movies spliced almost randomly into each other, is a bewildering experience. I like the critic from Variety magazine who described it as  "like an Alan Resnais film, only with zombie dwarfs." Despite Coscarelli taking a backseat on directorial duties, this is still very much a Phantasm film, albeit a sadder one - the sight of a much older Thornbury and Baldwin presiding over a similarly aged Bannister is very poignant. There are some concessions to modernity: the 18 years since Oblivion have seen the almost obligatory deployment of the hand held camera, here used quite liberally; and the spheres are now largely CGI generated (and because of the slim budget, none too convincingly).

And if you want to know whether there's going to be a sequel, watch Ravager's closing credits. Initially I thought I was watching scenes from the movie replayed, but it turns out that they are new shots that offer the possibility of further adventures with the gang, regardless of whether they're living or dead. And with it being Phantasm, the only thing that can be guaranteed is that Angus Scrimm won't be in the cast. Or will he?