Posted by nicklacey on 11 March 2013
Who’s the nuttiest?
What happens when the director of the Vengeance trilogy (that culminated in the demented Oldboy, Korea, 2003) goes to Hollywood? Actually, not quite Hollywood as this is a Scott Bros. production (Tony’s last) and wears its indie sensibilities with its $15m budget. Park Chan-wook in America, certainly, but creating a particular Gothic world that is too uncomfortable for the mainstream.
What a cast; for the money or otherwise. I’ve despaired recently about Nicole Kidman, who seemed to have gotten lost in Hollywood, but she does a brilliantly brittle turn as the mother of the bullied, yet sinister, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska – very good). Similarly excellent is Matthew Goode, all sinister charm, as Uncle Charlie who seems to have stepped out of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Hitch visited small town America; Park visits the Gothic; the film’s title is a tribute to Bram.
Park certainly has an eye for composition and there are some stunning set ups and the cinematography, Chung Chung-hoon, is great. While there are some gut-wrenching moments, it’s not as visceral as Oldboy (well, not much is) and the horror is nicely balanced between shock and suspense.
Posted in Horror | Tagged: Horror | 3 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 December 2012
Our beautiful North of England!
Every year, it seems, UK critics and commentators pick out a small independent film and promote it. I do this myself to some extent, but I don’t have any influence. Sightseers has been picked out by Wendy Mitchell, Editor of Screen International, and by Sight & Sound, whose editor put the film on the cover of the November issue. It has even turned up on the ‘Top Films of the Year’ list of a Belgian critic polled by Cineuropa and the film has won prizes at three European festivals as well as a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for its screenplay. Clearly there is something here that critics are responding to. I found the film to be an interesting exercise that somehow didn’t come together. The main disappointment for me was that it is billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it funny. I do like traditional gothic horror films and Sightseers promises to be a modern gothic horror but doesn’t fulfil the promise.
Sightseers is an interesting mix – a road movie, a romance, a satire, a crime film and a comedy. The two central characters, Tina and Chris (played by the two principal writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), are 30-something social misfits. We don’t learn about Chris’s background until later on but he has acquired a caravan and a car big enough to haul it around the North of England. Tina is a dog counsellor and knitter who lives with her mother and she eagerly accepts Chris’s offer to become his muse as he travels seeking inspiration for a book he is planning.
The film is presented in ‘Scope and it does show some of the beauty of the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I’ve seen it compared to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which traversed some of the same roads, but whereas Winterbottom and his cinematographer seemed to capture more than just pretty images, I didn’t feel the same about Sightseers. To be fair, this isn’t a film about landscapes. The scenery is meant to supply useful plot devices and to represent a certain kind of Englishness associated with the National Trust and the perhaps more middle-class tourists who visit the National Parks. On the other hand, Chris and Tina also despise other types of tourists or even locals. They are basically misanthropes who develop a taste for dispatching people who cross them/offend them in some way. A “ginger-faced man and an angry woman”, as the news reports describe them, make an unlikely pair of serial killers.
Sightseers is directed by Ben Wheatley who has already developed a strong reputation with critics for films he has written himself, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). His background is partly in television (like Oram and Lowe) and that background in a certain kind of contemporary TV comedy maybe the reason why Sightseers is not to my taste. I’m too old to watch BBC3 and I have avoided programmes like Little Britain or The League of Gentleman. I have enjoyed comedy horror films where the violence seems to have a point but in this case it just seems cruel – which isn’t to say that Chris and Tina aren’t an intriguing couple and several of the romance elements are explored in novel ways. Wheatley is an astute filmmaker and he has a real future ahead of him. The interview listed below is well worth a listen.
The film’s critical status meant a wider distribution than most films with this kind of budget and genre mix – through the European ‘major’ StudioCanal. However, despite the generally very good reviews, audiences have not been large and I doubt that the film has gone much beyond the core horror fanbase and those who follow the more cultish end of the British independent film scene. Sightseers opened very strongly on 92 screens but then tailed off quite dramatically by its third weekend, suggesting that word of mouth was not so good. Nevertheless it has managed over £500,000 so far which is acceptable for a UK cinema release and bodes well for a subsequent life on DVD and online – where I expect it to attract repeat viewings by fans.
Interview with Ben Wheatley.
UK trailer (WARNING: Spoilers)
Posted in British Cinema, Comedies, Horror | Tagged: black comedy, North of England landscapes, road movie | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 23 September 2012
Toby Jones as Gilderoy. Image © Artificial Eye
Peter Strickland’s debut feature Katalin Varga was such a striking film that I had great expectations of Berberian Sound Studio. To a large extent those expectations were fulfilled, but I also have some lingering doubts – not about the quality of the filmmaking, but about what the film offers to audiences. This is the kind of film that makes much more sense when you read the comments from fans. But I suspect that there are other audiences who don’t have the specific genre knowledge and who will be baffled . Challenging an audience is something I generally applaud, so what’s going on here?
The narrative takes a rather timid and introverted British sound recordist known simply as ‘Gilderoy’ (played by Toby Jones) on a trip to Italy to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. This is the mid-1970s and Gilderoy seems unaware of the tradition of the giallo – the lurid form of Italian horror/crime film which in dubbed form played in mainstream cinemas across Europe. The masters of the genre included Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Because of my aversion to ‘gore’ and ‘splatter films’, I’ve only seen two gialli that I remember, both by Argento. Even so, I can easily see how carefully Strickland has devised his satire – or is it an hommage? It isn’t a horror film as such, but it is disturbing as well as sometimes very funny.
Gilderoy lives at home with his mother in Dorking in deepest Surrey (and also the site of a Martian invasion in War of the Worlds). His experience is on nature documentaries and children’s films. His arrival in Italy is like the appearance of a sacrificial lamb. The film’s titular sound studio is populated by lecherous Italian production staff, beautiful young women and assorted strange characters. As one of the women points out, Gilderoy needs to assert himself if he is going to get paid. Toby Jones is perfect as the mild-mannered man who will find it hard to survive.
The film never strays out of the sound studio – except in Gilderoy’s imagination. Italian films of the 1970s were all ‘post-synched’ for every element of the soundtrack, so the ‘action’ of the film comprises voice dubbing, forms of music production and lots of foley work involving stabbing, squashing and splattering a variety of vegetables – with the pulpy remnants gradually rotting away in a bin. It doesn’t sound much to go on, but cinematographer Nick Knowland and editor Chris Dickens do a wonderful job with montages of the knobs and dials of vintage audio equipment alongside the rotting vegetables, and various actors attempting to find the right kind of scream for a woman being tortured with a red-hot poker!
The Press Notes tell us that “Peter [Strickland] himself has dabbled in sound art and electronic production as part of the trio The Sonic Catering Band. Tracks written by Strickland are featured in the film. There is a character called the ‘goblin’ in the film (voiced by a man who looks like he has escaped from an Italian golf club): Goblin was the band who provided the music for Dario Argento’s films Profundo Rosso and Suspiria. Strickland has also used the band Nurse With Wound in both this film and his earlier Katalin Varga. The sounds themselves (of the stabbing, squashing etc.) are wonderfully realised and the overall technical quality of the film is very high. Like Katalin Varga, this is a European film made by a ‘European’ Brit and a multinational cast. This time, however, the shoot was at Three Mile Island studios in East London, even though it is partly backed by German money and Screen Yorkshire supporting Warp Films (who are based in London and Sheffield). All the producers were keen to work with Peter Strickland, recognising him as a major talent.
The weakness for the general audience, apart from a lack of familiarity with all the references, is going to be the way that the narrative loses its drive in the last third. I won’t give away the ending and I think that it is an appropriate way to end this particular narrative, but it doesn’t perhaps live up to what audiences might be expecting.
Artificial Eye Pressbook
Official Artificial Eye trailer:
Posted in British Cinema, European Cinema, Horror | Tagged: giallo, Goblin, Peter Strickland | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 23 May 2012
I just didn’t see it
I commented that Dead Man’s Shoes (UK 2004) unsuccessfully tried to meld realism and genre; Kill List tries to do the same and similarly comes unstuck. Writer-director Ben Wheatley’s film was critically praised so maybe I don’t get it but I was desperate for it to end. Maybe – see Avengers post – ennui has got a grip and I need to start doing something other than watching movies.
What I did like was the sound design that used bridges quite daringly, so the sound from the next scene started well before the cut. Performances were good and the low budget was spread very well in its use of Sheffield-area locations. The first 30 minutes, the domestic strife of the protagonist, is well set up but when the film enters genre territory – he’s a hitman – it loses the plot (or me at least). We enter Saw territory with the extreme violence and I’m too old (bored) for that but, worse, when we reach the full-blown horror of . . . (spoiler alert!)
. . . Wicker Man territory I really could have cared less. Recent Hollywood horror has made the mistake of having unattractive teens as the protagonists so rather than worrying if they’re going to be ‘bumped off’ we’re actually cheering it (come to think of it, is that a subversion of the genre . . ?). And I really didn’t care what happened to this lot; even the cute kid.
What’s more, if you start in a realist vein then the horror elements should be rooted in reality. At least in Wicker Man the setting of an isolated Scottish island was sufficient to convince that the locals were doo-lally. But, in Sheffield? The Sight & Sound reviewer suggests that this might be a manifestation of post-traumatic stress syndrome, as the protagonist is a vet. It might have been but I didn’t see any clues.
Maybe genre shouldn’t be mixed with realism. Maybe we are at the end of genre; all the variants have been done and there’s nothing else to say… Maybe it’s the end of cinema!!! No, that’s definitely ennui.
Posted in British Cinema, Horror | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 22 April 2012
Juan (with the oar), his daughter Camilla, Vladi (with the baseball bat) and Lazaro
Is it possible to develop a sophisticated political discourse as part of a hugely funny and very gory zomcom? You bet! – and Juan of the Dead provides the evidence. I never expected to see a Cuban movie in a multiplex but now I have and with Metrodome handling UK distribution (it opens on 4th May) you’ll get the chance too (although only in ‘Key Cities’ as the current distribution jargon has it).
Inspired by both George Romero and Edgar Wright, director Alejandro Brugués offers us two middle-aged ‘jack the lads’, first spotted on their fishing raft a few hundred metres from the Malecón, Havana’s famous promenade. As Juan and Lazaro begin to despatch zombies in a matter of fact way, they see television announcements which refer to ‘dissidents’ who are causing trouble in the city. ‘Dissidents’ can only mean a yanqui plot as all Cubans know. The basic premise of the film is that in Cuba, there are three possible responses to any new problem for ordinary Cubans. First, consider opening a business, second, just ignore the problem and carry on stoically and third, steal a boat or build a raft and leave the country. Our heroes are going to consider all three and Juan is confident that he will make it since he has already survived the Mariel boatlift, war in Angola and the Special Period (after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cuban economy went into meltdown). Zombies offer just an opportunity to make some extra money but along the way Juan will have to consider what friendship and family mean to him.
This is a truly Cuban movie with a catalogue of jokes and sight gags with a distinctly Cuban flavour. When a car won’t start, it’s because it’s a Russian Lada. The characters who aid Juan include a very camp character and his hugely-muscled partner (with one fatal weakness) – sport and gay culture being concerns in various Cuban films. The only way to find the limited funds – a $1.6 million budget – to make the film was through a co-production with Spain which means that Juan’s daughter is played by a Spanish actress and the plot requires that her mother has not only left Juan but Cuba as well. There may be some audiences who recognise that the whole film is an allegory of the failings in Cuban society (the director jokes, rather like Simon Pegg, that the Cuban population often appear like zombies) and who wonder why the authorities allow this. But there is a long tradition of satire in Cuban Cinema, most famously in the work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. The Cuban state film agency ICAIC was involved in the production and I’m sure they will be pleased by the success I feel sure that the film will find in international markets. Having said that there is a rather po-faced put-down of the film on IMDb, arguing that the film fails to offer the correct political message and thus is not a worthy successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Of course you don’t need to know anything about Cuban cinema to enjoy the film as a romp through cleverly re-imagined tropes of the zombie movie. The cast is very good, especially Alexis Diaz de Villegas as Juan. The special effects are endearingly naff but work very well – and do stay through the credits which feature Sid Vicious and some very nice graphics. I hope the film does excellent business and raises the profile of Cuban cinema.
I quite like this ‘teaser’ trailer (mostly because it doesn’t show all the gags in the film)
Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Horror, Latin American Cinema | Tagged: BIFF 2012, Cuban cinema, zombies | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 March 2012
In the opening sequence set in 1937, the circus performers are dragooned into fighting against the Nationalist rebels.
This is exactly the kind of film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.
Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?
Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.
You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and . . . no, I won’t spoil it.
Balada triste de trompeta won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.
Posted in Comedies, Horror, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: !Viva¡, allegorical film, Spanish Civil War | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 13 February 2012
‘Hammer horror’ is back, which will probably only be meaningful to the older reader. The Woman in Black is a welcome return for this purveyor of British horror movies that has been defunct for 25 years; interestingly it’s only got a 12A certificate whereas the original Hammer benefited from salacious marketing emphasising the films’ ‘adult’ credentials.
In Britain the X-certificate (adults only) had replaced the H (for ‘horror’) certificate in 1951. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the new mass medium, television, film companies began using the X certificate as a way of branding their product as risqué and/or violent:
The number of films awarded an ‘X’ certificate by the British censor rose remorselessly from 1954 onward and especially at the end of the 1950s, when it quadrupled . . . (David Pirie, 1980, part 3, Hammer Horror Teaching Pack)
Indeed Hammer used the X in its marketing for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and this move launched the production company on a successful series of Gothic horror movies including both ‘Universal’s’ 1930s monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (1957). Using lurid colour, combined with the British theatrical tradition of acting (best exemplified by Peter Cushing), Hammer’s films were condemned by most critics and loved by audiences. Like the Victorian Gothic of its source material, Hammer movies sublimated the sexual into the violence of the monster. As censorship shackles lessened the sex became less sublimated and in the 1970s, when Hammer was struggling to survive economically, it produced exploitation films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970).
Sensibly, as the studio wouldn’t be advised to compete with the ‘gorenography’ of the Saw series (US, 2004-10), it’s chosen a modern ghost story, by Susan Hill, for its comeback. Clever casting of Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, ensured plenty of publicity for the $17m budgeted feature and it’s taken a healthy $35m after 10 days in North America. Despite its ‘lowly’ certificate for a horror film, there are plenty of spine-tingling-twitching-in-the-seat moments.
The film fits happily into the Hammer oeuvre with its Gothic house and suspicious ‘peasants’ though I wasn’t clear where it was set. Sight & Sound suggests the Fens, which makes sense, but the Settle-Carlisle railway is advertised on the train Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels on (our resident trainspotter – Roy – tells me the train’s all wrong). We even get the ‘classic’ scene when our hero enters the pub to glaring from the locals. However, there’s also more than enough to suggest the makers have learned from J-horror of how to make little details in the background as scary as big ones in the foreground.
I enjoyed the film even though I felt Radcliffe was little more than a lump of wood. I didn’t get a sense of the protagonist being reluctant to stay the night in the house that most of us wouldn’t enter in broad daylight. Hopefully the film will do well to continue a box-office renaissance for British cinema over the last 12 months. BAFTA, however, aren’t helping by claiming The Artist is the best film from last year.
Posted in British Cinema, Horror | Tagged: gothic, Hammer | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 October 2011
Otto Jespersen as the hunter with Johanna Mørck & Glenn Erland Tosterud as two of the three students. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
We’re off to Norway this week for a few days, so what could be better preparation than a Norwegian film currently generating much goodwill internationally? The Troll Hunter is a ‘creature feature’ that doubles as a satire about aspects of Norwegian culture on several levels – and it is hugely entertaining.
This film has been described as a ‘mockumentary’ but that doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t like the ‘mock’ suggestion. The Troll Hunter is presented as a ‘serious’ story (although there is plenty of humour as well) which uses the ‘found footage’ premise underpinning films like The Blair Witch Project. I didn’t really fancy this idea at first but I soon forgot about the premise as writer-director André Øvredal focuses on the story and doesn’t feel the need to remind us of the fact that it is supposed to be a student film project every minute. The shoot used Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3700 Varicam in order to get the best coverage of night-time events (which take up much of the narrative) and to replicate the look of the kind of digital camera that film students might use on a project like this. According to the Press Notes the dialogue and actions in each scene were improvised to retain the documentary feel (although the script gave detailed outlines of what would happen). The handheld work is pretty smoothly done so after a while you tend to forget about the conceit and focus on the story.
The story begins with a trio of student filmmakers, Thomas, Joanna and Kalle, who decide to investigate a mysterious local man who is suspected as a poacher of bears. Doggedly they pursue the man and one night they follow him into a forest in the hills where they witness his real work – hunting trolls. After initially telling the students to get lost, the troll hunter eventually invites them to join him on the hunt on condition that they do exactly what he tells them without any argument. You can imagine what that leads to.
The great thing about The Troll Hunter is that it is a genuinely interesting story that explores the possibility that trolls actually exist and that the Scandinavian authorities attempt to keep the troll’s presence in the mountains and forests secret. This policy then requires a hunter to ‘manage’ the troll population and several other government personnel to ‘cover up’ whenever troll behaviour threatens to become generally known. In this scenario it isn’t surprising that the troll hunter becomes disillusioned about the way he is treated and that some of the ‘cover-ups’ are poorly executed. In a neat touch we see the troll hunter filling in a ‘Slayed Troll’ Report Form over his breakfast.
The script is very good in explaining how trolls live, what they eat and what happens when they die. Trolls are deeply embedded in Norwegian folk culture and Øvredal offers four very different creatures from the gregarious ‘Mountain Kings’ living in caves to the 200 foot tall ‘Jotnar’ roaming the most remote mountains. All four types are humanoid in appearance, moving as bi-peds, but with various ‘distorted’ features – and they don’t like Christians. This religious intolerance is well worked into the narrative. The giant troll is the most spectacular, reviving memories of Japanese monster movies and American exploitation films like Attack of the 50 foot Woman. To my untutored eye the trolls look pretty good in terms of effects. However, it’s the human characters who drive the narrative and Otto Jesperson as the hunter is terrific. He’s a famous comedian in Norway and he plays his role to perfection. There is also a nice little cameo from Robert Stoltenberg as a bogus Polish trader who supplies the Norwegian authorities with a bear carcase for their cover-up. I wonder what Poles think about the ways in which their national stereotype turns up in other European stories?
The Troll Hunter was very popular in Norway last year and is currently on release in several territories. An IMdb user from Norway worries that it is ‘too Norwegian’ but that seems to me to be one of its most important features and it joins the small but growing list of domestic popular genre films that could be described as ‘global’ in appeal. The dreaded US remake is already on the cards, so make sure that you see this version first.
The official Norwegian trailer (with English subs):
Posted in Horror, Nordic Cinema, Norwegian Cinema | Tagged: found footage, satire, trolls | 1 Comment »