Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Black Christmas

1974
Dir. Bob Clark

Bob Clark’s seminal seasonal slasher fest is often unfairly overlooked by audiences and critics of the genre. Clark essentially concocted the blueprint for the American slasher movie with Black Christmas, predating the cinematic carnage courtesy of the onslaught of slasher films post John Carpenter’s Halloween (1979) a whole five years later. In directing Black Christmas, Clark should be given credit for much of the visual grammer and codification of the slasher film.

The residents of a sorority house are preparing for the Christmas holidays. Many of the other students have already dispersed leaving behind a small group overlooked by the affable and partial-to-a-wee-drink house mother, Mrs Mac (Marion Waldman). After a number of extremely unsettling obscene phone calls, someone breaks into the house and hides in the attic, killing off the girls one by one.
The tale unfolds at a shuffling-through-the-snow pace, ensuring the tension builds steadily to a genuinely shocking and chillingly bleak climax.

While the characters of Black Christmas are certainly more fleshed out than most slasher film characters, they are still recognisable ‘types’ that would become all too familiar in later films: the shy, bookish one, the prim one, the boozy-floozy (Margot Kidder), the threatening boyfriend, the sensible ‘final girl’ (Olivia Hussey) and the now-familiar incompetent police officers, including genre favourite John Saxon, who would later portray another frustrated cop in A Nightmare on Elm Street, (1984). This interesting mix of strangely believable characters, particularly the irreverent Barb who drinks, smokes and curses her way through the film (we like her very much) and credible, solid performances, help to enhance proceedings. Even though the characters wander off on their own, oblivious to the grisly events occurring around them, because of the believable performances, this sort of behaviour is more tolerable.



While all these traits seem worn thin by now, it is worth noting that this was the film that would introduce the characteristics and conventions that were eventually bled dry in the slew of slashers that followed. Arguably just a low budget exploitation movie, Black Christmas still remains a carefully constructed piece of shock cinema; low-key chills interspersed with slices of shocking brutality (notably the death of Kidder involving an ornamental crystal unicorn) add up to an engrossing and unforgetable climax.

With Black Christmas, Clark followed on the heels and paid homage to the work of Mario Bava, particularly Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Bay of Blood (1971) and the films of Dario Argento. The lurid giallo flicks of these two directors deeply inspired the American slasher boom in the early eighties: moody body-count films revelling in morbid atmospherics and breathtakingly orchestrated violence.
Much of the camera work in Black Christmas reflects the similar aesthetics of Bava and Argento.
Clark cannily cuts between the killer’s point of view, the victim’s and that of the audience, resulting in a frenzied, panic-stricken flurry. Shots of the killer’s omniscient eye spying out of the murky depths of the house permeate the film, heightening the tension and anxiety. Slow camera tracking and partially obscured shots ensure the viewer is kept firmly on the edge of their seat; the stalker could potentially lunge out from anywhere, and at times we’re not sure if we are seeing things from his eyes, or simply through the detached lens of Clark’s prowling camera.

The setting is also perfect for inducing an unshakable uneasy feeling - a big, comfortable house that one would expect to be perfectly safe in, lit up for Christmas and swathed in snow. While picturesque and inviting, it is eventually rendered an eerie and sinister place within its cosily lit halls and around every dark corner lurks a potential threat.



The first murder is one of the most unnerving and savage. As Clare (Lynne Griffin) finishes packing to go home for Christmas, the killer strikes without mercy right inside her bedroom, while her house mates get festive downstairs. Another tense and troubling moment occurs when Barb awakens in her bed to find the killer standing over her; her screams masked by a group of carol singers standing outside the house…
While much on offer is visually arresting, there is also a nerve-jangling soundtrack. Much of the score consists of haunting Christmas carols; twisted into haunting and creepy renditions due to the heightened tension and unsettling atmosphere. The noises that seep through the receiver during the obscene phone call scenes are deeply disturbing; a mixture of maniacal, inhuman cackling and guttural, primal grunts and moans.

The pièce de résistance comes towards the end of the film, when it’s fiendish urban legend inspired twist occurs, and the girls realise with horror where exactly the obscene calls are coming from…

If you aren’t in the mood for the usual Christmas holiday TV schedule, and you fancy something a little spine-tingling and unnerving, Black Christmas will provide a full-blooded alternative. Just make sure you check under your bed afterwards before you get into it… And avoid the vacant 2006 remake.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

1963
Dir. Roger Corman

After the relatively big budget Poe adaptations (House of Usher, Premature Burial and The Pit and The Pendulum) Corman returned to directing with this cautionary tale of dangerous curiosity and existential crisis. Dr Xavier (Ray Milland) is a scientist who has concocted a serum that allows the human eye to see through anything! Against the advice of his colleagues Dr Brant (Harold Stone) and Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), he experiments with the serum on himself. Sure enough, he is able to see through things! Walls! Paper documents! Clothes! However, this being a cautionary tale about the dangers of venturing into scientific realms we probably have no business venturing into, things inevitably turn bad for our intrepid doc. After accidentally pushing Dr Brant to his death from a window, Xavier goes on the run and winds up turning tricks as a fairground sideshow act, looking into people’s minds and reading their thoughts and social security numbers and being all ‘mystical.’ When his very real abilities are discovered by his employer Crane (Don Rickles), he is forced into providing a ‘healing’ service and gains the unwanted reputation as a miracle worker. Eventually he escapes and makes his way across a psychedelic landscape rendered increasingly indecipherable, to Vegas and the point of no return…

Quite typical of Corman, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes has a mass of pretty interesting ideas and subversive concepts that bubble beneath the veneer of an exploitable B-movie. The film’s low budget limitations however, ensure the grandiosity of these ideas often aren’t done justice, though Corman still achieves a philosophical air throughout proceedings with smart dialogue and a number of credible performances, particularly from Milland as the doomed doctor. 



When we are treated to events as Xavier sees them, the screen becomes aglow in colours and shapes and a sort of visual delirium seeps out of every frame.

As soon as we have the obvious visual gags out of the way, such as the hilarious scene at a party when Xavier sees through the clothes of the other party guests and we are treated to a carefully filmed (from below the knees or from behind the backs of the actors) orgy of flesh. We are also treated to the unforgettable sight of Ray Milland doing the mashed potato, a little too unenthusiastically. Things grow progressively morbid though. Soon, Xavier can see through the very fabric of everything around him, and he eventually glimpses the very centre of the universe. When he describes what he sees, the film once again becomes a stark voyage into one man’s existential hopelessness. Perhaps it is just as well that Corman didn’t attempt to film the horrifying visions Xavier claimed to see, and instead let the aural descriptions do all the shudder-inducing work.

The film contains effective dialogue that proves as vivid as some of the trippy visuals onscreen; at one point, when Diane and Dr Xavier are driving through the city, she asks him how he sees it. His response is chillingly bleak and immensely provocative. ‘The city... as if it were unborn, rising into the sky with fingers of metal... limbs without flesh, girders without stone... signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles... the city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light... a City of the Dead.’ Nice.

Another creepily effective moment occurs when Xavier awakens from the initial administration of droplets and we see Brant and Diana watching him with concerned expressions, only for the camera to move back to reveal Xavier is actually wearing bandages over his eyes.

When Xavier stumbles into a religious service at the end of the film, things become very Old Testament. Describing to the preacher what he has seen, he is bombarded by cries of "If thine eye offends thee... pluck it out!"

A film with a raw sincerity, containing more than a few genuinely thought-provoking moments and a chillingly unforgettable final image…

Friday, 12 December 2008

Carnival of Souls

1962
Dir. Herk Harvey

This obscure and oddly affecting horror film from the sixties was directed by Herk Harvey and shot on a ridiculously low budget in Lawrence, Kansas. It showcases Harvey’s vivid imagination and somewhat grandiose aspirations, despite the shoestring budget.

After a drag racing accident, resulting in a car being forced off a bridge into the murky depths of the river below, church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) seemingly emerges as the sole survivor. She appears dazed and soaked on the river bank before wandering off to begin a new life for herself in Utah.
However, she soon finds her daily chores increasingly interrupted by the spectre of a cadaverous man (portrayed by Herk Harvey) who stalks her every move. Eventually she is mysteriously drawn to an eerie amusement park on an abandoned pavilion outside town, where she realises the full horror of her fate.

The film successfully creates a veneer of normality which the otherworldly intrudes upon unassumingly at first, and then to devastating effect. Banal guesthouses, dingy dinners and bustling streets all play host to distressing situations and introverted fears.
The stark black and white photography evokes memories of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and other such haunting works of Expressionism.
The cinematography perfectly enhances the strange and bleak mood and nurtures a dreamy atmosphere that gradually plunges into nightmarish depths. The subtle shudders are also reminiscent of the hauntingly poetic films of Val Lewton. Chills are elicited through the impending feeling of dread that becomes imminently palpable throughout. The nightmarish feel of the film is aided by the spooky score of organ music, smothering proceedings in an unshakable gothic ambiance.


‘The world is so different in the daylight, but in the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand…’
A number of effectively unnerving scenes include the unsettling visage of Mary’s ghastly stalker appearing at her car window as she drives along lonely roads towards Utah. A couple of quietly eerie scenes also feature Mary practising the organ in an empty church: we observe her playing from a number of creepy camera angles before she appears to become possessed by some unearthly force and the music she plays becomes deliriously creepy - she is then evicted from the premises by a horrified Minister.

Another shuddersome scene involves Mary wandering through a bustling city square where no one seems to notice her or hear her pleas. subsequently, her tentative exploration of the deserted carnival pavillion seems meticulously engineered to induce shivers in almost every shot. Supremely creepy.





Her tentative relationship with her neighbour John (Sidney Berger) is perhaps the only instance of warmth in a film that simply drips with anxiety and dread, and even that ends sourly. The guesthouse where she stays seems to be a purgatory for the hurt and the helpless. John and Mrs Thomas the landlady (Francis Feist) simply fade in and out of the story, providing fleeting company for Mary, before she is once again on her lonesome.
Mary is a lost soul who stubbornly refuses to see the reality of her predicament. Candace Hilligoss provides a sympathetic performance and ensures that the viewer is as ensconced in the disturbing events as Mary is. She is a loner who seemingly shuns human contact, clutching at her independence and solitude, and gradually retreating deeper and deeper into the darkness that envelopes her. The film successfully creates a feeling of bleak hopelessness that is utterly consuming and all the more affecting due to the moving performance of Hilligoss.

The uncanny and anguished atmosphere evoked throughout Carnival of Souls, appears to have had no small influence on the work of David Lynch, particularly Eraserhead (1977). The somnambulistic ghouls of George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968) also appear to have their roots entrenched deeply with the imagery of Carnival of Souls, particularly in a scene depicting a group of empty-eyed, ghoulish beings emerging from a pool (also echoed in Romero’s Land of the Dead, 2005) to pursue Mary through the empty amusement park and eventually force her to embrace her dark destiny...

A melancholy horror that haunts like a waking dream.


The Horrible Dr Hichcock

1962
Dir. Riccardo Freda

This slice of quintessential Italian Gothic horror is a darkly beautiful and disturbing rumination on the most forbidden of desires… the love for the dead…

Robert Flemyng stars as the tormented titular doctor, a respected surgeon with a morbid and uncontrollable lust for sexually-liaising with the dead. He and his wife Margaretha (Maria Teresa Vianello), indulge in dark and sordid sexual encounters together: he sedates her with an anaesthetic he created, and as she slips into unconsciousness, he copulates with her deathly-still body. Margaretha eventually slips into unconsciousness, seemingly for the last time, when her husband administers too much anaesthetic during one of their macabre liaisons. Inconsolable, the doctor is unable to continue living in the house with ‘too many memories’ of his beloved wife, so he moves away.

Cut to twelve years later and Hichcock returns with a new wife, Cynthia (the eerily beautiful Barbara Steele). All is seemingly ‘normal’ with the doctor and his new wife. However this doesn’t last long. Cynthia experiences a number of strange occurrences in the house that unnerve her to the extreme. She eventually begins to suspect that her new husband is trying to kill her in order to be reunited with his first wife, who Cynthia believes to stalk the halls of her new home…



The story unravels in London, 1885 – a time containing its own hefty sexual undertones of repression and forbidden desire. Typical attitudes of the time dictated that men were the active party during intercourse and women inactive and docile. There are no exchanges of dialogue or touches between Hichcock and Margaretha until she is unconscious. Even though she complies with his demands (it is never made clear how the couple came to this arrangement) and is every inch the ‘good wife’ society at this time stipulated she be, her husband still strays – risking his career to ravish cadavers at work and in the nearby cemetery…
In his marriage to Cynthia, Hichcock does appear to be attempting to change his ways. Flemyng’s credible performance carefully highlights the tortured doctor’s struggle with his dark desires.

Much of The Horrible Dr Hichcock relies on cliché and genre convention, particularly in the scenes featuring a nightgown clad Steele, candelabra in hand, wafting through the dark and creepy corridors of the house. Secret passageways, seemingly never-ending thunder storms, sinister housekeepers and cunning plans to drive someone insane, are the stuff of high gothic melodrama/hokum. However, it is still a wonderfully atmospheric, tasteful and moody film. The baroque sets and lighting, graceful camera work and lavish production values, all combine to create a dreamily romantic and grandiose affair, steeped in haunting imagery and a lingering ability to unsettle to the core.



Seemingly typical of Italian horror, the illogicality and lack of narrative cohesion bleeds away into astounding imagery and artistic flourishes, conveying events through a series of provocative images. While the content of the film is far from explicit, there is absolutely no doubt concerning what is actually occurring.

The elegantly choreographed opening depicts the assault of a gravedigger by an unseen assailant, the subsequent opening of the coffin and fondling of the beautiful corpse inside. Events become increasingly unsettling and this downright shocking image echoes throughout the rest of the film.

An unnerving reference to Carl Theodor Dreyden’s Vampyr (1932) occurs when Cynthia wakes up inside a coffin with a glass window, revealing her distraught features; her inaudible screams fog up the glass and provide yet another disturbing and claustrophobic moment. Freda is another director who has an affinity with the face of Barbara Steele – her imperilled features look as iconic in this film as they did in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).


The name of the titular character aside, the film also abounds with sly references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. The threatened new wife and a portrait of the dead wife (Rebecca, 1940), the discovery of a skull in a bed (Under Capricorn, 1949), and the poisoned glass of milk (Suspicion, 1941). Indeed the concept of a man with an obsession for a dead woman was only hinted at in Vertigo (1958) – here it is openly explored.

The film was unique in its exploration of this unnatural desire – one wonders what the censors of the time thought. Other films with resplendent necrophiliac imagery such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), only hinted at such occurrences. The Horrible Dr Hichcock explores them in non-judgemental depth. The film never feels exploitative – this theme is central to the plot and characterisation. It is a brave film that does not proffer macabre content and then pretend to condemn it to ‘redeem’ itself. As a result it proves to be a startlingly thought provoking and hauntingly romantic piece of work.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Mother of Tears

2007
Dir. Dario Argento

After 27 years Argento finally returned to the sinister figures of the Three Mothers to complete his trilogy that began with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).

While wildly different in tone and style from the previous two instalments, Mother of Tears still contains some of Argento’s cruellest, most sadistic imagery yet. And that’s saying something. The film follows the outrageous journey of young art restoration student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) who, after witnessing the brutal murder of her colleague by three mysterious figures, soon realises that a powerful witch known as the Mother of Tears has returned to Rome and intends to unleash evil and untold heartache throughout the world.

Argento teamed up with writers Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch to pen the shocking and psychedelic Mother of Tears. Anderson and Gierasch also wrote Crocodile, The Toolbox Murders and Mortuary for Tobe Hooper - but don't let that put you off. Besides, The Toolbox Murders was actually quite an interesting little film. Digressing...

Argento insisted that Mother of Tears be as different from Suspiria and Inferno as possible, and considering those two films were largely studio based, and their diabolical stories unravelled within one location, this film unfolds in epic-feeling proportions. Rome is conveyed as a thriving cosmopolitan city, but one still deeply connected with its past - perfect for a story involving darkness from the past slinking into the present to wreck havoc and mayhem. Presumably with Anderson and Gierasch keeping tabs on Argento, and reining in his predisposition for sparse stories and wandering narratives, this film hurtles along at break-neck pace.




While its palette is considerably milder than the garish, nightmarish look of Suspiria and Inferno, Mother of Tears is still opulently stylish and lavishly gory. Argento’s characteristically seamless camera-work is still largely present here, most notably in the scene where Sarah discovers the home of the Mother of Tears: her cautious exploration of the sprawling and gothic abode is filmed in one long, languid shot.

The violence in the film is as cruel and overtly choreographed as in any of Argento’s previous films. The opening murder of Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) rivals anything the director has depicted before. There are also several unsettling and shocking instances where violence towards children splashes itself across the screen. Sergio Stivaletti’s special effects are competent, however the film is let down by over utilising shoddy CGI.

At times the film works as a compilation (a best of, if you like) of Argento’s oeuvre. Images and themes that cut through his films reoccur here with savage intensity: there are more than a few nods to Phenomena with the inclusion of a sadistic monkey (!), a pool of decaying human remains and Argento’s love of eye violation returns with a vengeance. Seemingly poking fun at his own reputation as a director obsessed with ‘eroticising’ violence, Argento offers us a ghastly death scene in which a woman is 'penetrated' by a huge spear between her legs: critics claiming knifes are actually phallic symbols will most liking implode when witnessing the death of Marta (Valleria Cavalli). it culminates in a grotesque and somewhat tongue-in-cheek spurt of orgasmic gore…




Udo Kier (who previously played a sceptic psychiatrist in Suspiria) appears here as a frantic priest. Argento’s former partner, muse, mother of Asia and co-writer of Suspiria, Daria Nicoldi, also appears here as a spectral mother, guiding Sarah through her hellish odyssey. This marks the first time the pair have worked together since Argento had her character shot through the eye in Opera (1987).

With Mother of Tears, Argento hasn’t quite made the ‘return to form’ many of his fans may have hoped for. The film simply runs out of steam towards the end and can't sustain the epic climax it was striving for. It expires with a whimper, not a bang unfortunately. This does seem to be in keeping with the prior two films though, as they also began as most conventional horror films end - climactic scenes of cathartic depravity that digress as the films unspool. Dario Argento has proved with this film though, that he is still a force to be reckoned with in the genre, and has created an outrageous, verging-on-camp, horror oddity.

Oh Mother the blood! The blood was everywhere...


Outpost

2008
Dir. Steve Barker

In a nameless war-torn eastern European town, mysterious businessman Hunt (Julian Wadham) hires ex-marine DC (Ray Stevenson) to recruit a team of ex-soldiers to protect him on a somewhat risky journey into deepest, darkest, undisclosed ‘eastern Europe.’ His dubious plans are to scope out an old military bunker.
The hard-as-nails gang of cynical, battle-worn veterans and mercenaries (It’s Tyres from Spaced!! And the guy from the Pot Noodle adverts!!) are rather unsavoury to say the least, and assume that their shifty employer is in search of buried Nazi gold. Once at the outpost however, the men make a horrific discovery that turns their entire mission on its head and pits them against a force of unimaginable, and apparently supernatural, evil.

Outpost is the latest military themed horror film in a sub-genre that includes The Keep (1983), Deathwatch (2002), The Bunker (2001), Shock Waves (1977) and R-Point (2004). It is a concept that appears to be infinitely more interesting and provocative than it has been successful. These films usually follow a similar formula: an isolated group of soldiers involved in ‘routine’ war-making/training operations that are interrupted by a supernatural and/or malevolent force. The ‘war as hell’ slant is played out until bleak conclusions reveal the source and raison d’être of the evil force. But can anything be more terrifying than war itself? These films admirably set out to convince us otherwise, with usually mixed results.
While Outpost isn’t strictly a war-horror film - its more closely aligned with Dog Soldiers (2002) or Predator (1987), its imagery and iconography certainly evoke memories of those other films.

Indeed, one of the most striking elements of Outpost is its visual effectiveness. The creepy, claustrophobic setting is minimally lit and contains long dark corridors that stretch off into pitch darkness, and corners, around which anything could be lurking, waiting to pounce…
A number of haunting and commanding images are splattered throughout, including the backlit spectral soldiers wandering out of the fog-draped forest and a dank room with its corners cluttered with corpses. Every shot seems meticulously designed to induce shudders and crank up the tension. Another utterly horrifying moment occurs when one of the men discovers that one of the ‘corpses’ he has been locked in with, is not as dead as he thought. The sight of Johnny Meres as the ghost-faced, blank-eyed Nazi general, is truly shocking and most unsettling. Unfortunately there isn’t enough in the story, or indeed the characters, to enhance this tension and a reliance on imagery alone simply bleeds into style over substance.

Tension is defused further by the rather unlikable characters, who, despite attempts by director Barker and writer Rae Brunton’s sparse script to flesh them out, are difficult to tell apart. With such a moody and sinister location, it is a shame that the story can’t match the setting and events soon disintegrate into cliché and any pathos evoked simply evaporates.

The zombie/ghost Nazis, when they finally put in an appearance, are incredibly effective. In the darkness it is only possible to make out their unmistakable uniforms; their faces remain concealed by the featureless dark. Another device deployed, seemingly to create effective jump moments and nothing else, is the fact that these figures can teleport and re-materialize anywhere. Usually behind one of the mercenaries. It is not made clear if they are actually zombies. Or ghosts. Or both. Still, the sight of them is enough to induce all sorts of night-terrors.



Some attempts are made to explain the origins of these shadowy foes. As it turns out, Hunt was never after Nazi gold, but a secret weapon that the Germans were developing during the war to enable their victory. Flashbacks depict horrific experiments carried out on German soldiers in an attempt to create ‘Super-Soldiers’, incapable of being killed: the ultimate killing machines.

Inevitably the cast are whittled down to one in an increasingly gory series of murders and graphic set-pieces. The grim events march onwards to their bitterly bleak climax, in a film that will leave more than a couple of supremely creepy images lingering in your head afterwards… but unfortunately not much else. Like the spectral Nazis in Outpost, your shivers will evaporate in the light of dawn.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Crocodile


AKA Further Evidence (If Any Was Needed) of the Demise of Tobe Hooper’s Career…
2000
Dir. Tobe Hooper

When you begin to watch a film about the rampage of a giant crocodile, you pretty much know what to expect. None of what you expect will be good. I’m guessing.
When you begin to watch a film about the rampaging of a giant crocodile as directed by Tobe Hooper, you might die a little inside from the sadness and shame of what this once sort of interesting and inventive filmmaker has been reduced to.

Take some annoying, buffed and polished ‘hot’ characters (thirty-somethings playing teens never grows old). Add some mind-numblingly stupid dialogue, a cute/rubbish dog, an utterly tripe soundtrack full of cheap rip-off rock music. Throw in an artery-hardening dose of really bargain-bin and downright-shoddy-even-for-a-low-budget-film ‘special’ effects. Hey presto, you have just concocted the shameful wonderment that is Tobe Hooper’s Crocodile. *gasp*

The only thing that had me hiding behind the couch during this one was the fact that it was just so head-achingly, mind-deadeningly, heart-breakingly bad. You might ask, ‘what did you expect?!’ And you’d be right to. Well, to answer your question, the movie was everything I expected it to be. I'm not complaining - someone gave it to me as a present and I had nothing better to do with my time. Really.



Characterisation in a film like this is beyond redundant – most viewers will probably just want to see nubile young bodies being chewed on by a giant crocodile with a dubious modus-operandi (said nubile bodies stole croc’s eggs for a laugh, you see. Hilarious). We don’t care if the guy with less spiky hair than the other guys is in love with the girl called Claire. Anyway, Claire is too busy getting her arse out to care, so why should we. We also don’t care if Annoying Jock #2 is like totally flunking his mid-terms, and thinks ‘Pizza is like sex’. But, you gotta take the rough with the smooth in a movie like Crocodile. Just. Die.

One of the girls wears contacts and disapproves of Annoying Jock #3’s friends, so I’m guessing she’s supposed to be the intelligent one. There are also a couple of ole’ Redneck boys fishing in a restricted area and discussing the unfathomable wonder that is the universe. Actually they don’t discuss that at all, but they do say stuff like ‘cock-sucking animal rights hippy bullshit’, spit a lot and get eaten very quickly by the giant croc. Said giant croc then disposes of the evidence by pushing the men’s car into the lake… clever croc.

During the obligatory camp-fire scene the teens discuss the old abandoned hotel in the middle of the bayou. Apparently the giant crocodile scared away all the tourists and the owner of the hotel went insane. This is revealed to have never happened but it sounds more interesting than the rest of the rubbish spouted by these morons. The next day the teens frolic in the water and the guys indulge in some homo-erotic pulling down of each other’s pants while the girls (apart from the ‘intelligent’ one) dreamily look on and say stuff like ‘Wow, isn’t Chad like the cutest!?’ Every now and again we are treated to glimpses of a giant plastic crocodile floating ‘menacingly’ close by our group of teens.

Upon discovering a severed arm and the fact that a couple of their friends are missing, there is much swishing of hair, hands on hips and idiots saying, ‘ok guys, I think we’re like totally lost.’ Like, oh my god.
The crocodile attacks are limp and laughable. But as they continue they just get depressing. Character stands too close to water. Giant, badly computer-generated crocodile snaps them up. It’s as quick and tensionless as that. When we finally get to see the croc in all its shoddy glory, it is beyond bad. It will most likely make you yearn for the ‘croc-vision’ used at the beginning of the film to make a return.

Eventually we are left with three characters in a gruelling scene involving a wheelbarrow and bug spray. And not gruelling in the way you might think, in that ‘oh they’ve made it! How gruelling.’ Just gruelling. Bad.

‘You guys? What if that thing is really magical? That means we’re not safe!’
The only time Hooper offers us a glance of his ‘usual high standards’ is in a scene featuring a creepy Gator Farm, complete with grotesque props, grimy skulls and dirty walls and a vague hint of sweltering and stifling atmosphere. When the characters arrive at Bob’s Convenience store you almost hope that Leatherface greets them at the door. There is also some unsettling talk about ‘death rolls’ and humans being reduced to ‘flappin’ bits of meat’ and there seems to be an attempt on the writer’s part to mythologize the giant beast.

Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. Except the scene where the giant, badly computer-generated croc jumps clean out of the water, soars above the boat in slow motion, pirouettes and gobbles up the sheriff. You should watch that bit.

HellBent

2004
Dir. Paul Etheredge-Ouzts

Slasher movies have always been associated with rampant, nubile teenagers drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking pot and indulging in pre-marital sex, oh my. And that’s not when they’re being murderlised in gory fashion by a hulking brute in a mask as they wander off from each other through creepy, maniac infested woods or down dark and stabby alleys. Is there anything that can be done now to distinguish these films from each other and add anything fresh and interesting to the genre? Does anyone care anymore?

Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, director of HellBent and former property master/set dresser, seems to think so. He has created what’s been dubbed the first ‘gay slasher movie.’ The protagonists are all gay, funnily enough, what with it being the first gay slasher movie (not counting A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge).

This certainly provides an interesting angle and some wonderfully spiky and bitchy dialogue; however the film still lacks any real invention other than the ‘queer’ novelty factor. General critical analysis of slasher movies dictate that the randy teens are usually dispatched because of their sexual explorations. Any characters indulging in sex are murdered and only the virginal girl who remains chaste throughout the film will survive. Critics have also drawn metaphorical parallels between sexual repression and the rampage of the killer. It’s in this subtext that HellBent is at its most interesting and amusing. The whole ‘ambiguous’ morality factor: are the victims being murderlised because of their sexuality or is the killer a repressed homosexual or am I just reading too much into what is generally just a substandard stalk and slash film? All of these possibilities are of course discussed by the savvy, pop-cultured cast and there are a few not-so-sly asides to Psycho thrown in for good measure.



However there really isn’t anything that will make this anything more than a gay spin on a tried and tested (and tired) formula. Right down to the obligatory pre-credits murder sequence involving a randy couple making out in a car in the middle of nowhere and getting themselves murderlised, the film sticks so rigidly to convention.

There is also a flicker of interest sparked when the protagonist, who also works in a police station, says to a cop friend, ‘Don’t let them make this just a gay-bashing thing.’ Apart from this quip, the film makers don’t politicize events too much throughout the film. Although in their own way, they also adhere to this plea from the character and invest enough interest in the other characters in order to elicit some emotion from the audience when the killer strikes. It’s not just a ‘gay thing’. Well, it is, but with more care and attention lavished on the characters than usual in a slasher movie.



The silent, seemingly invincible killer in HellBent is a bodybuilder type who wears a devil mask and wields a scythe, and while this is an unusual, striking get-up for a slasher, he never really elicits the menace you feel he should. Too busy looking buffed and polished. And a bit ridiculous.

HellBent, like many slashers, is a film best watched from the bottom of a pint/wine glass. This isn't a bad thing - just make sure its a good wine.

Visually speaking, the film features many lurid set pieces that have an Argentoesque feel to them; in other words everything is bathed in livid red lighting and creates quite an arresting, unsettling atmosphere.

Ultimately, this is a fun film and might just appeal to open-minded fans of the genre. It won’t offer any surprises (but fans of the genre should be used to this by now) however, and is very tame stuff indeed. It should provide slashy entertainment for an hour and a half and will go down well with a bottle of something red.

Botched

2007
Dir. Kit Ryan

Le pantomime du grand guignol…

Botched is a rather fitting title for a film that seemingly revels in its own brand of absolute anarchy. Largely shot in Ireland and Eastern Europe, it boasts an eclectic cast of credible character actors who lick up their absurd characters with perverse relish. And Stephen Dorff. But a Stephen Dorff on top form.

Beginning as something of a slick heist-caper complete with Ocean’s Eleven style car chases, jewellery-thieving, a groovy David Holmes-like soundtrack and talk of ‘one last job.’ However in a film called Botched, as its name may just suggest, you know that there is going to be some serious fuck-upedness and all will not go as planned. Sure enough, Richie (Dorff) is shipped off to Russia by his sadistic boss (Sean Pertwee) to retrieve a jewel-encrusted cross from a swish Moscow penthouse to compensate for messing up the last heist.

However, events soon bleed into something else entirely ala From Dusk til Dawn. That ‘something else entirely’ is an incredibly gory slapstick film. Splat-stick, if you will. While the ‘one last job’ goes wrong, as predicted in the title, what comes after is as shocking and ludicrous as some of the images it revels in, such as that fridge full of innards, a booby-trap featuring disco music and a glitter-ball (!!?) and some of the most over-the-top performances ever committed to celluloid. Oh, and a VERY fake looking rat.



Along with his somewhat unhinged accomplices Peter (Jamie Foreman) and Yuri (Russell Smith), an assortment of weird and quite possibly insane hostages, Richie becomes trapped on the mysterious thirteenth floor of the building. Richie you see, through no fault of his own this time, manages to ‘botch’ this heist too. While figuring out a plan, the three crooks lock up their newly acquired hostages and the viewer is allowed a few moments to become acquainted with them. At this stage the film is shaping up to become a slasher movie essentially. And we all know that characters in slasher movies are mere ‘types’, drawn with the faintest of strokes so we can tell them apart before they are bumped off. ‘Sexy’ Anna (Jaime Murray) and ‘geeky’ Dmitry (Hugh O’Conor) work in the building, as do ‘alpha-male’ Boris (Geoff Bell) and ‘shy’ Alex (Zak Maguire). There are also three women led by Sonya (Bronagh Gallagher), who don’t really say much except that they should pray and until later, we don’t really know why they are there. None really stand out that much aside from the perversely entertaining Bronagh Gallagher, who seems to be the only one who has nailed the irreverent tone of the film.

Needless to say, lunacy ensues and the group are soon picked off one by unsubtle one by an absolute bonkers villain called Hugo (Alan Smyth), who may or may not be Ivan the Terrible. Or a direct descendent from Ivan the Terrible. Or something. There were many things that distracted me throughout, like, I don’t know, the sheer audacity of it all, so I’m still not entirely sure what was going on sometimes. The sight of Hugo decked out in what looks like Viking garb and then prancing around waving his sword to Bach is unfathomably ludicrous and a wee bit shocking. You’d be more than forgiven for crying a little bit inside on witnessing this spectacle.


Dorff seems to be the only person involved taking things seriously (bless), but this suits his character and helps the film remain more grounded than it could have otherwise been. He portrays Ritchie with as much world weary resignation as the viewers of this film will have upon watching it. And when he says ‘this is getting out of hand’ one can’t help but wonder if he’s still speaking in character.

Despite its flaws, Botched is never boring. Viewers may well be shocked and befuddled by its sheer absurdity though and spend a lot of time either yawning or with their jaw on the floor exclaiming ‘I just can’t believe it.’ Its lack of seriousness makes the ever so slightly similar Severance look like Deliverance. Obviously relishing its low budget and grotesque humour, Botched is many things. But for now all I’ll say is that it is insanely goofy and gory. Beware.

Seriously.

The Abandoned

2006
Dir. Nacho Cerdà

This deliciously dark and broodingly stylish horror follows the sombre journey of film producer Marie Jones (the beautifully haggard and weary looking Anatasia Hille) as she chain smokes her way to bleakest Russia in search of her biological parents. This being a moody horror film though, things don’t pan out as she hopes and she ends up spiralling into an abstract nightmare of spooky, bloodied doppelgangers, haunted houses, man-eating pigs, domestic abuse and creepy siblings.

Rather low on plot but high in haunting atmospherics, The Abandoned is another production from Fantastic Factory sibling, Fantastic Discovery: a Spanish Hammer House of Horror-type company specialising in moody and subdued horror flicks such as Darkness and The Nameless. Their house style seems to consist of highly atmospheric and lushly shot films that have somewhat meandering and loose plots. That’s a nice way of saying that they are often all style over substance. But what style!

An intriguing and unsettling prologue sets the scene: a terrified and mutilated woman gives birth to twins moments before she dies, leaving her offspring in the care of her neighbours.

40 years later Marie discovers that she has inherited a decrepit farm house in deepest, darkest Russia. She sees this as an opportunity to seek out her roots and do a little soul searching. A sinister notary directs her to the property and Marie soon hitches a lift with a creepy trucker who promptly disappears as soon as they gain entry to the island where the house lies. Oh yes. Did I forget to mention? Yes, the house lies on an island. In the middle of a forest. Marie better stock up on those cigarettes, this place seems a touch remote… Events are plunged into more complications when Marie is cut off EVEN FURTHER from civilisation, by the collapse of a creaky old bridge that probably violated many a health and safety rule anyway. To make matters worse, Marie can’t swim. So far, so ‘ok we get the picture – she’s isolated.’
Director Cerdà builds tension nicely and it isn’t long before Marie catches a glimpse of a spectral woman who looks awfully familiar. Taking a tumble into the river, Marie wakes up inside the house and is confronted by a man who claims to be her long lost twin brother, Nicolai (Karel Roden).
This is where things start to get really engrossing and nightmarishly illogical. And then just very repetitive.



Initially much chilliness is elicited from the reoccurring appearances of the two doppelgangers: all white-eyed and mutilated, just standing in the corners of the frame, but soon they become too familiar. They sort of just shuffle about in a daze with their arms outstretched until Marie and Nicolai realise that they are doomed to suffer the same fate as their doppelgangers (without giving too much away – one of these fates involves the previously mentioned man-eating pigs). This is when the film becomes a sort of more mature version of Final Destination – not a sentence I ever thought I’d write. Issues of fate and destiny ripple to the dark surface and our long lost siblings realise that they have been guided here by greater forces: to die, as they should have done when they were infants.

The meandering and loose plot unravels further into overtly nightmarish and feverish terrain as the film progresses. One is unable to shake the feeling that ‘something bad’ is going to happen. However, the intrigue is somewhat spoiled by the films overabundance of flashy visuals and an obviously over-caffeinated editor. The mood of dread and pessimism continues to linger, but the viewer is just bombarded with rapid cuts to ‘creepy’ images within the house and the surrounding forest. This editing style is intrusive, to say the very least and the film may have benefited from longer, lingering shots to enable us to take everything in and be slowly emerged into the moody and dread-saturated story. While it could be argued that the fragmented narrative and snappy editing serve to highlight the confusion of our protagonists, I think that might be pushing it. Just a touch.


There are a number of technically stunning moments however, that do not actually detract from the moodiness. There is an extended reverse-motion scene towards the end of the film, when the house reverts back to how it looked in 1966, when Marie and Nicolai were youngsters. When Marie shakily explores the house with a flashlight, she wanders into a gloomy room and as she pans the torch around it’s light fleetingly reveals the violent actions that took place in that room. While this indeed looks cool, it doesn’t detract from the film as it is subtle enough to garner chills.


The film also manages to evoke such a feeling of loneliness and sadness amidst all the nastiness. It is a film about lost souls searching desperately for their roots, for something to call home and for belongingness. Instead they find out that their lives have been lived on borrowed time and that time is now up. Abandoned by their birth parents and now even by their own children, they seem to have always been destined to be alone. Yep. The Abandoned is as humorless as it sounds, but it is still a subdued and abstract horror flick for those who like their scares with a touch of pathos. And flashy editing.

Monday, 8 December 2008

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

2008
Dir. Jonathan Levine

A bunch of horny guys try to seduce an unobtainable sexpot at a backwoods holiday ranch, with devastating and splashy consequences. Sound familiar? well, maybe that's coz it is. But! Though its title sounds more like a Ryan Reynolds and Katherine Heigl starring rom-com, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is an above par slasher movie, with more than a few nods to its Friday the 13th influences.

A lengthy, almost languid opening evokes the tantalizingly forbidden sexuality of The Virgin Suicides, with a dreamy soundtrack and sun-kissed photography. Its in this context that the title arouses connections to idyllic childhood sweet-hearts and that one girl in school who matured before the others, capturing the imagination of the male populous. Almost every shot features a half naked teen, frolicking in slow motion in a pool or on the playing field or smoking a joint. The stifling atmosphere of hormonally charged sexual exploration is explicitly conveyed and hangs thick in the air, as is the manipulative nature, pettiness and hurtful interactions of teenagers.
The film’s strength lies in its exploration of this facet of teen life with their alternative agendas and manipulative backstabbing – perfectly highlighted in an early scene involving two young men daring each other to jump off a roof into a pool below. The characters are infinitely more drawn than their usual slasher counterparts. Having said that, they can be just as annoying and make as many clichéd decisions as every other slasher film teen. Wandering off into the dark to investigate a strange noise, anyone?

The camera seems as enraptured by Mandy Lane’s body as her male peers are, and indulges in every inch of it. As the titular character, Amber Heard combines the sultriness and girl-next-door quietude of Scarlett Johansson and Abbie Cornish, and she delivers a modest and sincere performance.






Events soon veer into blatant slasher territory as Mandy is invited to stay in the isolated family ranch of flaky stoner Red. They are joined by two other couples who can’t seem to decide who they want to ‘get with.’
It’s no secret though that the three guys who organised the trip, want to get into Mandy’s underwear. However, it soon becomes apparent that they are not alone. There is also a sex-crazed psycho stalking the surrounding countryside who also takes quite a shine to our Mandy and will do anything to get her alone. Except that after the first two uninspired and unsurprising deaths, director Levine reveals the, again rather unsurprising, identity of the killer. This guy is certainly no Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers though. While this means we don’t have to sit through the usual deranged modus-operandi and obligatory self-pitying histrionics of the psycho (Mrs Voorhees and Axel Palmer we mean you) and how ‘Mandy never paid him any attention so the only way he could make her love him was by killing her friends’, what we get instead is a further twist that may not surprise some but certainly highlights again the underlying theme of manipulation and obsession. This premature unveiling of the killer also doesn’t detract from the carefully built-up tension, and events still whisk along at a brisk pace. Quite frankly though, no one will be fooled by the ranch-hand red herring.




Despite a vast array of clichés, the film still manages to remain quite fresh and the creepy atmosphere is perfectly conjured as the camera prowls around the vast house, follows characters out into the darkness of the surrounding countryside, and sneaks peeks out of windows, revealing half-glimpsed figures strolling towards the house.
The violent dispatching of various characters by the killer is quite often shocking and raw, if a little stylised; one death in particular harks back to Dario Argentoesque eye-violation, blunt and sadistic in its execution.
In the harsh light of the following morning the tension is just as thick and the violence more brutal.

Mandy Lane wears its influences on its blood-soaked sleeves, from the rather fitting title-card that harks back to the likes of My Bloody Valentine, to the sun-baked landscapes of The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, albeit the remake, with its sweaty/dirty/sexy glossiness complete with sunspots on the camera lens. Thankfully it keeps the teen characters preoccupied with themselves, and their libidos, enough to disallow any unwelcome Kevin Williamson-style ‘irony.’ This is a sincere love letter to the grit of late 70s/early 80s slasher films. Any humour in the script comes from the acidic wit of the protagonists as they verbally spar with each other over everything from penis size, to who should go ‘check out the generator.’ Remind me again why these people are friends?

While there is a spate of early-slasher revival with the likes of The Hills Have Eyes remake, Switchblade Romance and Wolf Creek, and the varying-in-quality remakes of Prom Night, April Fool’s Day and Halloween, Mandy Lane has a sexy edge and sly wit that places it easily alongside, if not ahead, of the best of the bunch.

So, altogether now - who do we love?!