Saturday, 27 June 2009

Giallo - Exclusive Review

2009
Dir. Dario Argento

Beautiful model Celine (Elsa Pataky) is abducted in Turin by a deformed and deranged serial killer nicknamed Yellow, due to his lurid skin colour – the result of a rare liver disease. Celine’s sister, flight attendant Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), reports her disappearance to the police and joins the somewhat odd and secretive detective Enzo (Adrien Brody) in his investigation to try and find Celine before she becomes Yellow’s latest victim. Enzo explains that Yellow is obsessed with the destruction of beauty and that a number of attractive female victims have been found, their faces and throats horribly slashed and mutilated. The race is on to save Celine’s life and put a stop to Yellow’s reign of terror and bloodshed once and for all…

Dario Argento’s latest film Giallo premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week. Unfortunately Argento was conspicuous by his absence at the premiere and it is rumoured that he is unhappy with the final cut of the film and is attempting to distance himself from it. Giallo is a deliberate throw back to the subgenre Argento popularised in the seventies, with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. 'Giallo' is Italian for 'yellow' and takes its name from the vividly coloured covers of pulpy thriller/detective novels popular in Italy. Giallo films are famed for their extreme violence, exquisitely stylish direction, bizarre plot twists and meandering narratives. The title of Argento's latest film is also a reference to the titular character's grotesquely jaundiced complexion. Opening to a packed theatre with no fanfare whatsoever, the film began quite unceremoniously after rather appropriate and luxurious red velvet curtains slowly parted to reveal the opening credits unspooling beneath Marco Werba’s darkly dramatic, beautifully foreboding and utterly appropriate score. Ominously swirling strings and spooky choral arrangements stabbed at by a blasting brass section collide to provide one of the film’s undisputed highlights. Werba effortlessly evokes the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman, while still imbuing his score with a distinct and unique grandeur all of its own. So far, so good.

The film opens with two female Japanese students attending an opera show. At once it seems as though we are in familiar Argento territory as the camera flicks around the opera house taking in all the excessive opulence and elegant grandeur. The two girls decide to sneak off to enjoy their last night in Italy and hit a night club to dance the night away. When one of them hooks up with a guy, the other – Keiko – decides to head back to the hotel for the night. Caught in a torrential downpour, Keiko jumps into a taxi and is whisked off to a secluded spot in the city’s backstreets. The driver, whose fiendish and glaring eyes are reflected in the rear-view mirror, attacks and abducts her, bringing her back to his seedy and Eli Roth Hostel-like subterranean lair to mutilate her beautiful looks and eventually kill her in blunt and brutal fashion. Almost before we can catch our breath, we are introduced to Celine as she flounces sexily down a catwalk modelling the latest high fashion and arranging to meet her sister Linda after the show. She becomes the latest captive of the deranged killer who still leers over a by-now mutilated and utterly distraught Keiko. Celine exhibits more sassiness however and eventually gives Yellow a few home truths while her sister and detective Enzo frantically search for her.



Sean Keller and Jim Agnew obviously know how to spin a great yarn and Giallo hits the ground running, but rather unfortunately it seems Argento may have just phoned it in with the direction on this one. There was none of his usual lavish camerawork, though everything was indeed beautifully and rather lushly lensed by cinematographer Frederic Fasano. For an Argento film, Giallo is perhaps one of the most conventional films of his career and compared to the vast majority of his work, it seemed extraordinarily tame. Towards the end of the film the audience laughed, a little derisively perhaps, at the absurdity of some of the dialogue and performances, particularly that of the usually exceptionally competent Seigner. A few gasps were uttered at the increasingly astounding plot twists too – though it must be said that this sort of narrative unravelling is fairly typical of giallo films and the writers must be praised for nailing the often absurd traits and idiosyncrasies of the subgenre.

The film unfortunately falls flat with some of the dialogue though, and its pantomime villain, who looks like - and exudes about as much menace - as a toothless Bo’ Selecta-like Rambo. Brody actually portrays Yellow as well as Enzo. Under the pseudonymous moniker Byron Deidra, his performance as the film’s titular villain is rather ineffectual and doesn’t elicit much threat or fear.
As Enzo however, Brody delivered what must surely be one of the best performances in any Argento film (save for Liam Cunningham and Stefania Rocca in The Card Player) and Brody plays it very straight throughout – even when mumbling some quite embarrassing dialogue – particularly in the scene where he opens up to Linda and, after an utterly intense and exuberantly violent flashback, almost spoils everything by reciting dialogue about how he did what he had to do and doesn’t expect anyone to understand... Enzo is a typical Argento outsider; socially awkward, slightly eccentric, secretive about his dark past and rarely seen without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Brody is deadpan throughout and instantly seemed to win over the audience with his sly humour and highly droll performance. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Emmanuelle Seigner, whose icily monotonous and somewhat detached performance came across as rather wooden at times.

For some time now Giallo has been hailed as a potential return to Argento’s roots and a dramatic ‘comeback’ for the director. Much like the anticipation of the release of everything he has made since Opera, Giallo also manages to subvert expectations and confound fans and critics like. Having said that, Argento’s fans are also his biggest critics; expecting nothing but the best from their beloved director. And rightly so. With his impressive back catalogue, the director has etched his mark on horror cinema for all time. Argento has often struggled to please his audiences of late, particularly throughout the nineties. Sleepless was regarded as something of a ‘return to form’ for Argento, and after the catastrophic disaster that was Phantom of the Opera it was easy to see why.



Giallo references other Argento films such as Opera, Deep Red and Tenebrae - writers Keller and Agnew are obviously fervent fans of the Italian genre and at times Giallo feels like a whirlwind tour of everything gialli. Indeed, many of the usual themes associated with the subgenre are echoed throughout Giallo: the outsider protagonist, the destruction of beauty in the form of sexy female victims, lavishly filmed scenes of brutal violence, a villain with distinct psychosexual issues and revealing flashbacks that are laced throughout a convoluted narrative. And in keeping with the traditional investigations carried out in any number of gialli, clues are often simply stumbled upon or plucked from the air moments before another audacious plot twist occurs and we are yanked along by the story to its next grisly instalment.

At times the film feels as though it’s an older Argento film. Much like Phenomena, Sleepless and to an extent Trauma before it, Giallo is a melting pot of quintessential Argentoesque moments and potentially iconic images that have been lifted from his other work and swirled together to concoct a deliriously sumptuous and self referential affair - a kind of 'greatest hits' package, if you will. Again the undeniable sense of self-parody comes into play and at times the film teeters on the brink of camp, but always knowingly so.

While Argento’s reputation has taken something of a battering throughout the last 15 years, it is quite evident that the director still retains the ability to infuse astoundingly violent imagery with an almost sexualised elegance and bizarre beauty. The scenes of bloodshed that flow throughout Giallo, could reasonably fit into any number of the director’s previous films. A particularly vicious moment occurs when Yellow takes a blade to Keiko’s lip, prompting at least one member of the audience to leave rather abruptly and not return. Wimp. Argento has evidently not lost his touch or ability to shock, and he still directs the scenes of violence with inimitable vigour; particularly the grisly flashback scenes which form some of the film’s highlights.



Giallo is interesting as an Argento film due to its irony and knowing humour. Written by Keller and Agnew as a loving homage to the work of Argento, the film also works well as playful parody - much is contained within the unfolding drama to please fans of both the genre and of Argento, but it might not convince those less familiar with either. While Argento has played around with humour before, his latest film forms a sort of culmination of this. Argento was allegedly unhappy with the self referential nature of the script, however, the playful nature exhibited by the film is certainly one of its strong points. At times it resembles a compilation of vintage Argento moments and works best as a parody of giallo films and indeed Argento films - in much the same way as Mother of Tears served as a conclusion and a parody of the director’s supernatural Three Mothers trilogy.

Giallo might not mark the triumphant and long awaited ‘return to form’ of the director who gave us the likes of Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Tenebrae, Deep Red – even The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless - but it still marks Argento as one of the most interesting horror/thriller filmmakers of his generation working in cinema. While certainly nowhere near Argento’s usual standards (even compared to his recent work – it is certainly on a par with the likes of The Card Player and maybe even Sleepless), Giallo is still worth checking out. Argento fans might get a kick out of it; however it will certainly not do his current reputation any favours. It was a lukewarm pool of glinting claret, as opposed to the gushing geyser of still-hot and thick blood that many had hoped it would be.



When it concluded the film was met with initially cautious, and then merely tepid applause, though it was obvious the audience enjoyed Argento’s latest spectacle of viscera – even if it was not the film it could have been. Hopefully Giallo will receive a theatrical release – Argento’s work really does deserve to be seen on the big screen in all its blood-soaked and opulent glory.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Witch’s Mirror

1962
Dir. Chano Urueta

Housemaid Sarah, who is also a practising witch, discovers that her goddaughter Elena’s life is in danger and attempts to help her. The spirits and deities she converses with through her mystical mirror show Sarah the face of Elena’s killer, but command her not to interfere. Elena is soon poisoned by her husband, renowned surgeon Eduardo, who sets about moving his new wife Deborah (Rosita Arenas - The Curse of the Crying Woman) into their castle. Sarah vows to avenge the death of her goddaughter and sets about communing with dark spirits to summon the ghost of Elena, who soon begins to stalk the halls of the castle and torment her husband and his new bride. With horrific consequences…

This is a film in three distinct parts; each more elaborate and fiendishly enjoyable than the next. The first part, which involves the murder of a woman by her husband, and his subsequent remarriage to another woman, is a highly gothic and overwrought melodramatic romance with distinct shades of Mario Bava and Hitchcock. Recalling the likes of Rebecca and The Horrible Dr Hichcock, the new wife is terrorised in her new home by the ghost of her husband’s first wife. A harpisord plays by itself! A vase of flowers instantly wilt and die! Ghostly voices call out from the shadows! And Elena gazes malevolently from the other side of the mirror before emerging from it in a flurry of double exposure to menace her husband's new bride.


When Eduardo attempts to destroy the mirror, he accidently sets fire to his new wife Deborah in the process. Now horribly disfigured, Deborah’s head is wrapped in bandages and a guilt-ridden Eduardo vows to restore her to her former beauty. The film then takes on the form of the typical ‘Mad scientist who desperately wants to restore his wife’s beauty after a horrific accident leaves her disfigured’ narrative; popular at the time and akin to the likes of Eyes Without a Face and Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orloff. As Eduardo attempts to right one wrong and redeem himself, he unwittingly creates a whole slew of subsequent tragedies and increasingly horrific occurrences. Abducting cadavers from the local morgue and exhuming just-buried corpses from the nearby graveyard, Eduardo and his assistant eventually exhume a woman from the ground to discover she is still alive – they don’t let this mild inconvenience stand in their way though. Meanwhile, Sarah once again calls on the ghost of Elena, who possesses a pair of disembodied hands soon to be transplanted onto poor Deborah’s scarred body.

The Witch’s Mirror then begins to resemble the likes of Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers, as Deborah struggles to control her new body parts which, unbeknownst to her, have been possessed by Elena and are intent on murdering Eduardo.



While it is fair to say that Urueta uses pretty much every horror film cliché in the book, because he approaches the subject matter with such vitality, earnestness and imagination, it is hard to denounce The Witch’s Mirror as a cheap rip off. The film abounds with visual tricks and effects that still hold up and prove rather effective today; namely the rather gruesome surgical scenes and the various moments in which the mirror reveals the sinister demons and spirits that peer out of it. All these astounding images and set pieces swell together under a haunting and overwrought atmosphere. While dated, the effects still prove rather effective and even somewhat endearing; perhaps because of the sincere context in which they are presented.

Moody black and white photography enhances the gothic ambience of the castle. Characters wander around long, shadow filled hallways. One particularly striking and downright creepy moment takes place as Sarah implores her dark overlord to spare her goddaughter’s life. As she converses with a sinister disembodied voice, she gradually looks up into a corner of the room, and perched there is a ghastly creature that resembles some hideous gargoyle shrouded in burial robes. This effective shot comes as a complete surprise and is utterly chilling.
As Deborah paces in her darkened room with her head swathed in bandages, the room is lit by an ethereal light and the suffocating shadows thrown by it threaten to engulf her completely, enhancing the stifling imprisonment she feels beneath her claustrophobic bandages.



Despite the striking similarities to other films, The Witch’s Mirror more than holds its own and sets about creating a provocative atmosphere that proves utterly captivating. Urueta’s film has such an abundance of style, imagination and creativity that it is never dull, and chances are you might find yourself constantly surprised by the visual delights and the ever-twisting, wildly audacious plot.

The acting is perfectly adequate, with all the major players conveying the rudimentary amount of inner turmoil and morbid melancholy. The film pretty much hits the ground running and its opening scenes immediately grab your attention in vice-like claws, drawing you into an immediately intriguing story with a myriad of striking images and overwhelmingly melo-gothic trappings. As Sarah and Elena stand before the titular mirror, visions are revealed to them through an eerily billowing fog within the glass and the occasional glimpses of some warped fiend peering back at them with dark curiosity is expertly realised. The haunting and macabre imagery the mirror reveals is all effortlessly conveyed through the utilisation of expert trick photography.

The Witch’s Mirror is also interesting because of the fact that we are never entirely sure who the ‘hero’ of the tale is. Is it the Satan worshipping housemaid who basically wants to help her wrongfully murdered goddaughter gain revenge from beyond the grave? The lovelorn surgeon who murdered his wife in order to be with the woman he really loved? Or new wife, Deborah - an innocent victim in all the ensuing gothic melodrama? This somewhat highly ambiguous morality constantly shifts and morphs throughout the story.



Frequently surreal touches such as the disembodied hands detaching themselves from various bodies and scurrying about the creepy operating room seeking out their prey, are guaranteed to deliver chills directly to your spinal cord. The film treads a fine line between effective restraint and genuinely grisly revelations. The surgical scenes and shots of dissected and limbless bodies unceremoniously propped up in a store room also prove quite unsettling. The work of Val Lewton and Mark Robson (particularly Isle of the Dead) is subtly evoked in the eerily graceful images of Elena as a wraith, wafting through the darkness of the night in her white burial robes.

The Witch’s Mirror is a unique horror film that drips with atmosphere and ingenuity - give it a go and prepare to be enraptured by one of the best fright-flicks from the Golden Age of Mexican horror - it works wonderfully as a double bill with The Curse of the Crying Woman. Moody, atmospheric and thoroughly deranged fun.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Drag Me To Hell

2009
Dir. Sam Raimi

When loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is ordered by her boss to toughen up if she ever wants to get a promotion, she begrudgingly decides to get assertive: with the wrong person. Mrs Ganush, an elderly gypsy woman, applies for a third extension on her mortgage; Christine turns her down and inadvertently humiliates her. Mrs Ganush places a nasty curse on Christine that will culminate in her being dragged off to hell in three days. Over the next few days Christine’s life is turned inside out and shat all over by demonic forces intent on torturing her before pulling her down to burn in hell for all eternity… Nice. Can she find a way to stop them before its too late?

When Ain’t It Cool News described Drag Me To Hell as a ‘juggernaut’, they really weren’t lying. While not particularly scary, this film is the cinematic equivalent of a dodgem car ride. The jumps and shocks come so thick and fast that quite often you don’t have time to fully recover before the next one comes along and you’ve been reduced to a shuddering, popcorn covered wreck. The scares, while calculated and cheap, still blast off the screen without mercy. Whether it’s with the sudden sharp shocks of abrupt music cues, or simply the swelling of Christopher Young’s atmospheric score to immense and ear-splitting proportions whilst coinciding with clever editing and deceptively unannounced imagery, it never fails to deliver cattle-prod-to-the-face jolts.



Drag Me To Hell has a similar feel to Raimi’s Evil Dead films; it’s darkly comic, yet insanely shocking and filled to the brim with grotesque visuals and macabre playfulness. While at times it has a distinct tongue-in-cheek vibe, everyone still plays it fairly straight, which often results in moments of nervous laughter. The splashy gross factor of Evil Dead is present here too in the many scenes where the gypsy woman spews/barfs/vomits/leaks all manner of disgustingness over Christine; mainly into her screaming mouth. Outrageous, and at times quite atmospheric, its over the top and wickedly humorous entertainment, with just the right amount of juvenile glee so as not to become too disturbing.

The darkly cartoonish violence is highlighted in one scene that features an anvil conveniently suspended above the nasty Mrs Ganush, just crying out to be dropped on her disgusting personage. There is also some morbidly humorous business involving a cute kitten and the need for a sacrifice of appeasement…

The usual Raimi-esque traits are all present and correct: the constantly moving, at times utterly deranged camera work, the yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that appears in all of his films and a cameo by Ted Raimi. All the while he treads that ever so fine line between comedy and horror so gracefully. Alas, Bruce Campbell is nowhere to be found, but you can’t have everything.



The film does falter slightly towards the end when things become quite predictable. A scene featuring a séance culminates in some creepy Deadite-style possession shenanigans and there is some nasty business in a graveyard that attempts to disguise the inevitable ‘twist’ to come involving a button from a jacket. This however does not sully the enjoyment, or suspense, and in the end it resembles a sort of extended Tales from the Crypt/Twilight Zone morality tale of terror. As Christine, Alison Lohman is sincere, likable and totally convincing throughout. She is initially introduced as a shy, retiring wallflower, unable to stand up for herself and embarrassed by her miserable childhood as a farmer’s daughter. By the film’s close though, she has made the transition to a kick-ass, no-bullshit grrrl, without losing any of the substance that makes her such a fully formed character and so damn likeable. Lohman’s performance is testament to how we are rooting for Christine to survive the horrors invading her life, right up until the inevitable final moment. She is supported by a strong cast including Justin Long as her ever supportive boyfriend. As the horrible old gypsy woman Mrs Ganush, Lorna Raver is suitably deranged.

Drag Me To Hell is a Spiderman-budgeted Evil Dead-like fright-fest, that managed to blast this hardened, rum-filled reviewer out of his own skin more than a few times throughout its running time.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Night of the Seagulls

1975
Dir. Amando de Ossorio

AKA
Don't Go Out at Night
Night of the Blood Cult
Night of the Death Cult
Terror Beach
The Blind Dead 4

Doctor Henry Stein and his devoted wife Joan move to a small seaside village in the middle of nowhere in order to set up a medical practice. Shunned by the inhospitable, mouth-breathing ingrates who call themselves locals, and warned to leave as soon as they can by the nervous former doctor, they soon discover that the village harbours a dark and blood-splattered secret. For seven consecutive nights every seven years, the townsfolk congregate on the beach to sacrifice one of their young women in order to appease the savage appetites of the Templar knights who rise from their tombs in a nearby castle to claim the unfortunate victims…

Following on from Tombs of the Blind Dead, Return of the Evil Dead and The Ghost Galleon, Night of the Seagulls is Ossorio’s forth and final instalment in his Blind Dead series. Once again the diabolical living-dead Templar Knights return from their graves to claim helpless victims. The Templars, medieval knights put to death centuries ago for their dark practises and love of all things cloven-hoofed and horny, rise from the dead as mummified skeletal beings, shrouded in their bloodied and soiled hooded garbs, to drink the blood of the living. As a result of having their eyes plucked from their hanging bodies by crows, they rely on sound to track their victims.



By now it was fairly obvious that Ossorio was either running low on inspiration or out of money to fund his Blind Dead indulgences. The Ghost Galleon, as fun as it was in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way, marked a decidedly low point in the series. Thankfully Night of the Seagulls, while by no means a full return to form, was at least a welcome return of sorts to the eerie atmospherics and quiet menace of the original Tombs of the Blind Dead.

Opening with a moody and uneasy flashback, we bear witness to the merciless savagery of the Templars first hand. A couple travelling through the night become lost. Seeking help from an isolated farmhouse they are surrounded by a group of white-robed knights on horseback who kill the man and kidnap his female companion, taking her back to their castle to sacrifice her. Most of these scenes unfold without music, the only noise on the soundtrack are the victims’ cries for mercy and the sinister sounds of the restless night around them.



The film’s strong point is its assortment of arresting visuals: the sight of the white-robed knights stealthily emerging from the darkness in the opening flashback, the various shots of the women’s bodies as they lay in a deserted cove surrounded by crabs and the creepy image of the deformed prowler’s face at the window as Joan unpacks her luggage are a few select highlights. The dark processions of black-robed villagers along the beach are staggeringly ominous, and of course, the sight of the skeletal and hooded knights riding in slow motion along the eerily deserted beach proves unflinchingly commanding. A weird dreamlike atmosphere presides over everything and Ossorio yet again reuses footage of the skeletal knights emerging from their tombs to ominous effect. Many of the beach scenes play out under some sort of soft focus effect; one suspects this is because they were shot during the day and there’s only so much you can do with day-for-night photography to make it look like the middle of the night.

The characters, while still not exactly memorable, are nowhere near as annoying or inappropriate as the dunces from The Ghost Galleon. Our protagonists here are the new doctor and his wife. The reception they receive from the stand-offish locals is cold, to say the least. It is obvious that something sinister is afoot in the village and Henry and Joan are warned to keep to themselves and not go out after dark. While this is all fairly standard exposition for a horror film, it still manages to raise a slight chill, partly due to the location of their secluded house – high up on a cliff overlooking the constantly harsh and cruel sea. The isolation of the village is nicely realised too. Situated in a barren and mountainous place it appears inhospitable and uninviting. The houses look like they are being consumed by the ravaged landscape, as they jut out of large cracks and crannies. Stifling superstition, an unquestioning adherence to old customs of years gone by and the villagers’ unwavering hostility to outsiders all adds a touch of claustrophobia to the story. There is no reasoning with these small minded folks - and it is this aspect of their self-contained community that makes them so threatening.



While the preceding films in the series all featured learned professors to explain the dark history of the evil Templars, this time that particular task is the responsibility of the token village idiot, Teddy. He explains, in that loveable slack-jawed manner characteristic of Ossorio’s village idiot types, how the villagers are plunged into despair for seven nights every seven years, as they are forced to sacrifice their young women to the Templars in an effort to avoid total annihilation. There is a dark poetry in his explanation of the presence of the seagulls that take to the skies during these seven nights: they are the anguished spirits of the previous sacrificial victims.

The structure of Night of the Seagulls is rudimentary and fairly repetitive. Each day the locals further ostracize the newcomers and at night the newcomers hear strange bells tolling and the screeching of the gulls over the beach, signalling the sacrifice of a local woman. This formula persists throughout the film as the doc and his wife gradually learn about the secrets of the townsfolk. Things really kick off when Henry rescues his maid Lucy from being offered up to the Templars. The villagers flee, all too aware of the carnage that will ensue. Henry, Teddy, Lucy and Joan barricade themselves into their cliff-top house and await the inevitable attack. This was a missed opportunity on Ossorio’s part. The drama and suspense that could be garnered from such a situation (evidenced in the likes of Night of the Living Dead, The Fog and even Return of the Evil Dead) is nowhere near as well executed as it could have been. The Templars come, they get into the house, the survivors leg it on the knights’ living-dead horses with the knights in slow motion pursuit, and the two survivors who aren’t picked off manage to destroy a huge statue in the castle that seems to put an end to the evil reign of the knights. And that’s it. The end.



While not nearly as good as previous offerings, Night of the Seagulls is still a distinct step up from the unintentional hilarity of The Ghost Galleon and somehow manages to provide a strangely fitting end to the Blind Dead series that, thanks to some astounding visuals, lingers hauntingly like a fading nightmare.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Ghost Galleon

1974
Dir. Amando de Ossorio

AKA
Ghost Ship of the Blind Dead
Horror of the Zombies
Ship of Zombies
The Blind Dead 3

The Blind Dead return to hunt tender flesh on the high sea!

Two models are out at sea in a new speedboat as part of a publicity stunt. Don’t ask, just go with it. Their boat is surrounded by a thick fog and a seemingly abandoned ship drifts out of nowhere. Radioing for help the models then naturally enough decide to explore the vessel and even more naturally enough, mysteriously disappear. Their belatedly concerned colleagues set out to find them; but not before consulting with a professor who believes that the ghostly ship contains the living-dead bodies of the Templar Knights! When our intrepid and fashionably dressed rescuers board the ominous ship, they too soon fall prey to the reanimated and blood-thirsty corpses of the Templars… Who are apparently just chilling out on a cruise.

Following on from the Tombs of the Blind Dead and Return of the Evil Dead, Amando de Ossorio quickly churned out a third instalment of the Blind Dead films - The Ghost Galleon. The nefarious group of living-dead Templar Knights once again return to menace those unfortunate to encounter them. The Templars, medieval knights put to death centuries ago for their barbaric ways and love of all things satanic, rise from the dead as mummified skeletal beings, shrouded in their bloodied and soiled hooded garbs, to drink the blood of the living. As a result of having their eyes plucked from their hanging bodies by crows, they rely on sound to track their victims.

Setting this film onboard a ghost ship seemed like a stroke of genius on Ossorio’s part. The potential for creating scenes of terror and claustrophobic tension is rife and the sight of the mummified Templars shuffling around the creepy, fog shrouded ship are disturbingly realised. Unfortunately though, high hopes for an effective fright-fest should be abandoned, as The Ghost Galleon is by far the weakest and shoddiest film in the Blind Dead series. While the other films in the series aren’t exactly shining paradigms of great story-telling, acting, direction or writing, they are flawless compared to the vast ineptitude on display here.



The characters in this are some of the worst from the series. None are in any way sympathetic and their resemblance to the Scooby gang is just ridiculous: all turtle necks, stripy polyester flares and psychedelic neck-scarves. You dig it? Ridiculous dialogue delivered in either the flattest way imaginable or in the throws of overacting, ensures a distinct lack of tension. Much of the running time consists of idiotic models wandering around the vast and creaking vessel in their underwear, or unbearably trite and seemingly endless exposition. The Ghost Galleon at times contains dialogue that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soft-core porn film and it boasts another dodgy flashback of the two female flatmates bonding and brushing each other’s hair. Erotic. And this is all before the characters even come to the conclusion that the ship exists in a parallel dimension…

STARE! As morons vaguely search the ship for their friends. GASP! As they chew the scenery. BE AWE STRUCK! At their sheer incompetence. SCREAM! At their inability to use stairs. The woefully inept and panic stricken victims, with their pitiful, overdramatic whimpers, are utterly laughable. Their feeble protestations go on a touch too long. One of the most protracted and utterly mundane death scenes in recent memory unfolds as a particularly annoying character blunders and flails around making Tor Johnson look good. Stairs just fail this ‘blond bombshell’ as she bumps into everything around her before being pulled, rather gently, back down beneath the deck by extremely fake arms. Like most of the victims in the Blind Dead series, this lot just can’t get to grips with basic stuff like moving out of the way, or holding onto something to pull them away from the perpetually grasping claws of the knights. Locking doors proves an impossible task too. Slack-jawed idiots.



The spectral galleon itself is incredibly creepy. However, nothing can disguise the fact that many shots of the ghostly ship are of a model. Ossorio does at least try to distract from this by filming it from obscure angles and from under water. One well executed aspect of the film is its sound design. The noise of the ship as it constantly moans and creaks really adds menace and a foreboding feel to proceedings. The misty and dank sets full of eerie lighting and rumbling noises, and the sight of the Templars emerging from the crates in the hull of the ship, are as nightmarish as anything in the previous films. The scenes when the Templars rise up en masse from the depths of the ship are also effectively ominous. Unfortunately all the nightmarish stylisation is lost without a decent script to enhance it. As with Return of the Evil Dead, The Ghost Galleon also appears to have had a major influence on John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) with its maritime spookiness - a theme Ossorio would continue in his next Blind Dead film, Night of the Seagulls.

When the remaining survivors eventually make it back to land, with the help of a plank of wood, they collapse on the beach and erm, go to sleep. Their plan to throw all the coffins overboard (which is as tedious as it sounds) is about to backfire spectacularly. We are soon treated to some magnificent shots of the blind dead emerging from the sea and lumbering onto shore; sea water streaming from their empty orbs. A striking and pretty chilling final shot ensures the film closes on a distinctly bleak note. Just as well we really didn’t give a damn for the characters after all.



Without a doubt the weakest entry in the series, The Ghost Galleon, with its buckets of eerie atmosphere and ghoulish imagery, could have been a really shuddersome film. However, with no plot to bolster the spine-tingling visuals or add anything that even remotely resembles impact or interest, the resulting film is a let down. As dreadful as it is, the combination of terrible acting, guffawing dialogue, shoddy direction and all-round laziness actually elevates The Ghost Galleon into the sublime realms of ‘so bad, it’s good.’ Enjoy with a generous glass of wine… Or five.

Now excuse me while I go off and learn how to do 'all the important things, like fix my hair.'

Friday, 12 June 2009

Return of the Evil Dead

1973
Dir. Amando de Ossorio

AKA
Return of the Blind Dead
Attack of the Blind Dead
Mark of the Devil 5: - Return of the Blind Dead
Mark of the Devil Part V: Night of the Blind - Terror
Mark of the Devil V

Jack Marlowe’s return to his home village of Berzano to patch things up with his ex, coincides with the village’s 500th anniversary celebrations of the slaying of the Templar knights who plagued Berzano’s inhabitants centuries ago. The village idiot, disgruntled because of the way he has been outcast, sacrifices a virgin to reanimate the bodies of the Templars and extract retribution. Sure enough, her blood resurrects them and they ride on living-dead horses into the village to slaughter anyone they can find. A small band of survivors seek refuge in the town church and try to stay alive until morning whilst the gruesome Templars stand guard outside…

Amando de Ossorio really made an impact on horror cinema with his series of Blind Dead films, the second of which, following on from Tombs of the Blind Dead, was Return of the Evil Dead. Each film revolves around the exploits and murderous rampages of a group of living-dead Templar Knights. The Templars, medieval knights put to death centuries ago for their barbaric ways and satanic worship, rise from the dead as mummified skeletal beings, shrouded in their bloodied and soiled hooded garbs, to drink the blood of the living in (then) modern day Spain. As a result of having their eyes plucked from their hanging bodies by crows, they rely on sound to track their victims.

The Blind Dead films have often drawn comparison with the Living Dead films of George Romero. Most likely because they also contain images of the shuffling dead returning to feast on the still warm flesh of the living, who attempt to defend themselves by retreating to a confined hideout. There the similarity ends really, though Return of the Evil Dead is much closer in its structure and plot to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in its depiction of a small band of merry survivors barricaded into a confined location and squabbling amongst themselves; leading to as much danger within their sanctuary as there is outside of it…



De Ossorio has really upped the scale with this sequel, as a whole village attempts to defends itself against the relentless onslaught of the Templar knights. One of the highlights of the film has to be the spectacle of the rotting knights riding their phantom horses in slow motion through the village, creating panic and bloodshed in their wake. Bodies are impaled, arms, limbs and heads are lopped off and the streets run red with the carnage. Where Tombs of the Blind Dead featured a number of dodgy sex scenes, so too does this film. Cue many more ‘titillating’ shots of exposed and heaving breasts and another dodgy and unnecessary rape scene that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. De Ossorio, what were you playing at?

The pacing of this film is swifter than its predecessor and boasts a much stronger story too. Much more tension is created, particularly in the early scenes depicting the siege on the village and when the small group of survivors barricade themselves in the church. Eventually though, the characters are still reduced to clumsy, bumbling idiots unable to perform such basic tasks like opening doors or just moving out of the way of the clutching hands of the Blind Dead; they mainly just stand rooted to the spot and put their hands over their eyes. Because that’ll help when you’ve got a horde of blood-drinking, flesh-eating, living-blind-dead Templars closing in around you… After a while this does not create tension, it creates fatigue.



The film is quite successful in how it mythologizes the figures of the Templars. We learn how they are tied to the past of the village of Berzano. The continuity error involving how they were rendered blind can be explained due to the fact that it is a different village from that featured in the first film and therefore, perhaps, a different group of knights… In Tombs the explanation for their blindness is attributed to crows pecking out the eyes from their hanging corpses. In Return, the villagers of Berzano are said to have burned them out. Whatever the explanation, the Templars look as ominous and eerie in this film as they did in the first instalment. The sight of them riding on horseback in slow motion is undeniably atmospheric and incredibly creepy. De Ossorio wisely keeps them quite prominent and unlike many other cinematic ‘boogeymen’, the more we see of them doesn’t detract from their ability to terrify. There is however a number of scenes that feature reused footage from Tombs; notably the shots of the knights rising slowly from their graves. This can be overlooked as the footage has lost none of its creepiness. The day-for-night photography that populated Tombs, makes a return here. It doesn’t really detract from proceedings too much, as before, and again in the later two instalments of the series, it adds a surreal sheen to events.

The characters are all essentially stock types, and while the script attempts to add a little depth to them, the performances on show obliterate any attempted nuances on the part of the writers. Each character has existed in some form or another throughout horror cinema: Jack, the ‘hunky lovelorn loner’ who smokes a lot and looks moody, Vivienne, Jack’s glamorous ex who is now engaged to the corrupt Mayor Duncan; the village idiot, the young family of the Mayor’s long suffering right-hand man and a sexed up couple who seem to be there purely to round up the numbers. There is a great deal of tension however when the characters interact in the church. Much squabbling about how to escape ensues and suspense is generated when the cowardly Mayor sends two survivors to their deaths in an attempt to save his own skin. Tempers flare, cigarettes are smoked and manly poses are struck as events become increasingly taut.

We are treated to another flashback of the Templars in their formative years sacrificing a scantily clad young lady; cue much bright red garish blood splattering all over uncovered and worryingly heaving bosoms. We also see the Templars put to death by the pitchfork wielding, torch bearing villagers of Berzano, who have had enough of being pushed around and oppressed by the wayward knights. Before they die though, the knights swear to return from beyond the grave to destroy the village once and for all.



There are an interesting number of striking similarities between Return of the Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s spook-fest, The Fog (1980). Not only do we have a small community terrorised by the sinister figures their ancestors destroyed, there is also a group of people who also seek refuge in a church until the climax of the film. On the 500th anniversary of said destruction, no less. There is also a scene where a young child is in grave danger and rescued at the last moment (Nancy in Return, and Andy in The Fog). Unlike The Fog though, danger is not completely quashed by the break of day. As the subdued light of dawn slowly crawls across the landscape and the remaining survivors cautiously make their way from the church, they are still in grave danger for a time and a highly suspenseful scene (that recalls a similar moment in the final moments of Hitchcock’s The Birds) occurs.

Without a doubt the strongest film in a series of films that are deliberately exploitative, yet undeniably effective in terms of atmosphere, tension and nightmarish visuals that remain as powerful today as they did upon initial release.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Tombs of the Blind Dead

1971
Dir. Amando de Ossorio

AKA
Crypt of the Blind Dead
Mark of the Devil Part 4: - Tombs of the Blind Dead
Night of the Blind Dead
Revenge from Planet Ape
The Blind Dead
The Night of the Blind - Terror
Tombs of the Blind Dead

Whilst on holiday, glamorous couple Roger and Virginia bump into Betty – an old friend of Virginia’s. Roger invites Betty to join the couple on a train ride the next day but Virginia, confused and embarrassed by her boyfriend’s obvious interest in Betty – and by the lesbian fling she and Betty had whilst in college together – jumps from the train to seek solace. Finding refuge after nightfall in the ruins of an ancient monastery, Virginia is horribly murdered and her blood greedily guzzled by the resurrected corpses of the Templar knights buried in the ruins. When she doesn’t return to the hotel, Roger and Betty set out to find her. They don’t however bargain on running into centuries old living-dead knights, hungry for young, nubile flesh…

After directing several non-descript westerns and bizarre vampire flick Malenka (1969), Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio really made his mark on the landscape of horror cinema with his series of Blind Dead films, the first of which was Tombs of the Blind Dead. The film and its sequels (Return of the Evil Dead, The Ghost Galleon and Night of the Seagulls) revolve around the exploits and murderous rampages of a group of living-dead Templar Knights. The Templars, medieval knights who were put to death for their wicked ways and satanic practices, rise from the dead as mummified skeletal beings, shrouded in their bloodied and soiled hooded garbs, to drink the blood of the living. As a result of having their eyes plucked from their hanging bodies by crows, they rely on sound to track their victims.

Tombs of the Blind Dead has such a simple premise, and while the story is paper thin, the direction is handled so effectively by de Ossorio, who really shows his strengths when it comes to concocting an overwhelmingly creepy atmosphere dappled with inventive and utterly nightmarish visuals throughout. As this was the Seventies though, he does have a tendency of relying a little heavily on his zoom lens; which leads to more than a few unintentional laughs.

The fact that the Templars rely only on sound to stalk their victims is a great twist. It just so happens that the idiotic characters inhabiting this particular story are some of the noisiest ingrates imaginable: stomping and thumping around wildly, listening to transistor radios whilst being all ‘groovy’ and becoming ludicrously hysterical when confronted with the spectacle of the hideous and bloodthirsty Templars. When the small group of survivors eventually realise how the Templars are tracking them, they quieten down and the tension can at last mount higher. Templars, crafty scoundrels that they are however, can even hear the beating of a human heart…



The eerie atmosphere and morbid visuals are really what makes this a horror film worth checking out. The acting is wildly uneven, the characters are utterly useless and the dialogue is absolute trite. One of the most random flashbacks imaginable is inserted into the narrative; not to shed some insight on the characters or add depth or intrigue to proceedings - but rather to provide some ‘kinky’, and downright laughable, lesbian ‘action’, in which Virginia and Betty canoodle on a sun-kissed bed and stroke each other’s hair whilst dressed in VERY skimpy underwear. Jess Franco, eat your heart out. This is here purely for exploitative purposes and to titillate. Obviously. Though anyone ‘titilated’ by this probably shares de Ossorio’s assumption that when two women are alone they like nothing better than to strip down to frilly lingerie, brush each other’s hair and have giggly pillow fights. The flashback, accompanied by the noise of the steam train the characters are travelling on, is to say the least, unintentionally hilarious. Even some of the steam from said train wafts into the flashback, making it all soft-focused and, erm, ‘highly erotic.’

Also hilarious is when Roger and Betty team up with a smuggler and his bitchy girlfriend they initially believed to be responsible for Virginia’s disappearance. The smuggler’s father, conveniently enough, is a highly regarded professor and expert on the Templar knights who is able to shed some highly expositionary light on the history of the fiendish creatures. Cue a flashback to the Templars in their heyday, sacrificing a young woman and drinking her blood. Cue also many close-ups of a large knife being plunged into latex breasts and bright red gore effects.
When Roger, Betty, the smuggler and his girlfriend stay the night at the ruins in order to try and find out what happened to Virginia, there is a lot of wandering around through dusty, cob-webbed hallways, slowly opening doors and splitting up to investigate, well, completely inconsequential stuff. It’s just a lazy excuse to get the characters by themselves so they can be devoured by the creepy knights.



A couple of gratuitous sex scenes are present too, you know, just in case things aren’t quite exploitative enough for ya. There’s really no need for the aforementioned lesbian flashback or indeed the rather dodgy rape scene. Neither holds any relevance to proceedings whatsoever and de Ossorio needn’t have bothered, as there are far more interesting things going on. Like the whole living-dead Templar knights murderlising people and drinking their still warm blood thing…

Speaking of which, it is without a doubt the Templars who steal the show. De Ossorio himself crafted the unique appearance of their horrid features - he designed the make-up effects that were utilised to create their ghastly visage. To his credit, they are indeed the stuff of childhood nightmares. The images of the rotting and fetid knights wearily rising, empty-orbed, from their graves are striking and supremely sinister. The knights also ride on the backs of spectral horses, and they do so in slow motion, which adds to the spooky and surreal atmosphere. Even the day-for-night photography, a staple of most low budget horror films from yesteryear, adds a touch of the uncanny to the film. The fact that these mummified and shambolic ghouls are decomposing doesn’t stop them from slowly but surely closing in on their prey. To begin with, the frantic, panic-stricken and hysterical actions of the victims as they desperately try to flee their attackers, contrasts nicely with the shuffling, yet unstoppable advancement of the Templars, and quite a bit of tension is created. However it soon becomes quite tiresome. There’s only so much care and concern you can invest in characters that seem to have problems with such basic tasks as simply opening a door, or, I don’t know, just stepping out of the way of the advancing, arms-outstretched living-blind-dead.



Aside from the eerie appearances of the Templars, another memorable moment occurs right at the end of the film, just as the two remaining survivors board a packed train to seek rescue. The knights also board the train just as it moves off and wreck bloody havoc on-board. When the train plunges into the busy station the ghouls disembark to slaughter more innocents on the platform and we are left with the haunting image of the sole survivor of the carnage as she huddles helplessly in the coal bunker.

Tombs of the Blind Dead is a good old fashioned schlocky horror fest with genuine moments of tension and jaw-droppingly astounding visuals. As the first in the series of de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films, it serves as an eye-opening and appropriate introduction to the ghastly escapades and spectral ridings of the gruesome Templar knights. The series is quite significant in Spanish horror cinema - because of its commercial viability for one reason - and it has a deserved cult following today. Of course, while watching the film, and depending on how much rioja has been consumed, it is not difficult to draw parallels and read into an intriguing, if rather tenuous subtext centring around the brutality and oppression of the Fascism that was rife throughout Spain when the film was made. Horror films have long been claimed to mirror what is particularly extreme and controversial in the societies and times in which they were produced. Franco’s dictatorship crumbled only a few years after the release of this film. Now, I’m not saying that Tombs of the Blind Dead, or indeed any of the Blind Dead films, had anything to do with that… although everyone knows Fascists only come out at night to drink the blood of the living…



Highly recommended for those who like their horror atmospheric, creepy and at times sporting that inimitable Seventies retro kitsch that we all love so much.

Travia: When Tombs of the Blind Dead was initially released, in some places it bore the forehead-smackingly stupid title Revenge of the Planet Ape. Obviously greedy and unsympathetic execs wanted to shamelessly cash in on the recent success of Planet of the Apes (1968). The mind still boggles though.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Don’t Ring the Doorbell

1978
Dir. Karen Arthur

AKA The Mafu Cage
Deviation,
My Sister, My Love
The Cage

Two sisters, level-headed yet repressed astronomer Ellen (Lee Grant) and mentally unstable and highly volatile Cissy (Carol Kane) share a crumbling mansion together.
Since the death of their father the siblings have lived in a darkly co-dependent and quite isolated relationship that can only lead to tragedy. Ellen’s only interaction with the outside world is through her work as a researcher at an astronomy lab. Even this seems to be a lonely life outside of her home. Cissy meanwhile spends her days sketching various primates she has been keeping in a cage. She refers to them all as Mafu. When she grows tired of them, she kills them. It becomes apparent that Ellen keeps replacing them for her, despite the fact that she knows it is Cissy who kills them. The only other person in the lives of the two sisters is their godfather Zom, who stops in from time to time to humour Cissy and console Ellen.

Adapted from Eric Wesphal’s play ‘Toi et Tes Nuages’, Don’t Ring the Doorbell is a vaguely feminist and claustrophobic study of familial breakdown and mental anguish.

It was whilst browsing in one of Belfast’s many discount/tat shops I came across this obscure title and as soon as I read the blurb and noticed that it not only starred Carol Kane, but that it was also based on a play, I parted with a whopping £2 and scurried off home to indulge myself. Don’t Ring the Doorbell appears to be one of those films that has been cheaply released with a random, tacked on title that actually has very little to do with the film itself. This was originally released under the title The Mafu Cage, a much more appropriate title given the subject matter. I don’t know who is being urged not to ring the doorbell, or why, but this bizarre title has no bearing on the story whatsoever, instead it serves as a much more exploitable title for what is otherwise quite a thoughtful and unsettling melodrama. Having said that, I guess it was down to the cheap and oh so bad title that drew my attention to this particular DVD amidst all the Shark Attacks, Creature from the Black Lakes and Dolph Lundgren titles also on display. Fickle, I know. But hey, on with the review!

Don’t Ring the Doorbell, is an unsure hybrid of quasi-feminist angst and psychological horror pap. Shades of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion shine through in the film’s depiction of a vulnerable and highly unstable young woman undergoing a complete mental breakdown. There is also a touch of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in the tale of two oddball sisters fading away into madness in their secluded and ramshackle house.



Cissy stalks through the house to tribal music, dressing up and dancing. Her room is covered in exotic plants, African relics and various tribal masks showcasing her complete submersion in primitive culture. She often whips herself up into a worrying frenzy and even her sister has difficultly in calming her again. Ellen is portrayed as the ‘normal’ sister, what with her being quite prim and all. It is obvious that at times she is resentful of her sister’s condition and the fact that their father made her swear to always look after Cissy, despite the fact that she needs psychiatric help.

‘I don’t know how to talk to people, living or dead.’

The relationship between Ellen and Cissy forms the core of the story. Their relationship is at times highly ambiguous. They are shown sharing a bed and at times, Cissy seems a little too familiar with her sister. A definite incestuous subtext lurks within the story and coats the film in an uneasy atmosphere and renders it totally stifling. Things become increasingly tense when Cissy overhears Ellen talking about her colleague and potential love-interest David. It becomes clear Ellen has been deliberately distant with David, but secretly harbours the desire to embark on a relationship with him.

Events take a drastic turn when Ellen leaves Cissy alone at home to embark on a business trip and David unexpectedly calls at the house. He soon sees why Ellen was so secretive. By the time he realises that Cissy is clearly insane, it is far too late. He is initially intrigued by her curious manner and she plies him with wine. She manages to persuade him to allow her to chain him up in Mafu’s cage (the fool), and eventually beats him to death. This is the part of the film that events seemed to be leading up to, however they are far too briefly executed to create much impact.

The obvious metaphors of caged animals that are untameable, are rife throughout the film. Ellen is essentially Cissy’s keeper. The bizarre and highly atmospheric tribal score evokes heat, danger and the fact that the wild and untamed nature of Cissy is constantly simmering under the surface of proceedings, ready to erupt like the random shots of solar flares inserted into the narrative. The scenes featuring the chained Mafu are unsettling and uncomfortable. Mafu might be the wild animal, but it has nothing on Cissy. The scene where she beats the poor creature to death is shocking and intense. Kane’s performance is startling and the sight of Cissy in full tribal garb and lurid red body paint is memorable, to say the least. When she delicately wraps Ellen’s body up in her hammock the moment is unsettling in its quiet morbidity.

One of the most striking shots features Cissy submerged in her bathtub, the water around her, blood-red and livid. This simple moment perfectly encapsulates how she has been utterly consumed by, and immersed in, her own blood-dark insanity.



At times it is obvious this was based on play. The limited sets and stagey direction is detached and uninvolving. Everything appears to be open to interpretation – from the stifling relationship of the sisters, to the reasons why Cissy views people, particularly men, as no better than her shackled primates. Unfortunately most of the events, particularly towards the end of the film, play out under almost complete darkness. This ensures that it is quite hard to follow. The performances of the two leads however, are strong and convincing throughout.

While Don’t Ring the Doorbell was not quite engaging enough to create the impact it was striving for, that’s not to say it isn’t worth checking out. Part horror film, part psychological study, the film also hasn’t dated very well, but remains an intriguing and obscure little oddity with a highly unsettling, if rather predictable denouement.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Paracinema - Issue 6

Issue 6 of Paracinema is available to order now.

The latest installment includes insightful and original features such as 'Videodrome: The New Flesh Comes Home To Roost' by Mel Cartagena, 'The Origins Of Last House On The Left' by Chelsea Suarez and 'The Anti-Industrial Revolution And The Anti-Aesthetic Approach Of Paul Morrissey' by Matthew Whoolery.

Sound good? Click here for more details about the new issue and click here to buy it...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Martyrs

2009
Dir. Pascal Laugier

Anna (Morjana Alaoui) and Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), two girls with revenge on their minds, track down a family who held one of them captive as a youngster. Their quest for vengeance and knowledge leads them on a gut-wrenching and depraved journey into the dark recesses of pain and suffering, anguish and torture.

Brutal. Shocking. Intense. Provocative. Raw. Unflinching. Disturbing. Numbing. Powerful. Unforgettable.

These are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the jaw dropping spectacle that is Martyrs. The thing is though, they are all actually true. However, no words can really be utilised to fully prepare you for the visceral onslaught you will experience (undergo) while watching this breathtakingly extreme film. Daily Mail readers in particular, beware.

Much of the astounding and sadistic imagery, while firmly rooted in the current climate of horror cinema, dubbed ‘Torture Porn’, is handled with a purity and sense of purpose and it strives to provoke and stimulate as much as it does to unsettle and horrify. Martyrs successfully transcends its contemporaries – which is fitting really, for a film ABOUT transcendence. The sheer scope and intention of this film accounts for all the pain and humiliation inflicted upon its protagonists and its audience.

Martyrs begins as an archetypal horror film and is so convincing in doing so that it has us fooled for a while. We feel we know this type of film so well. Horror fans in particular will relish the whole new direction events will drag them in. As soon as you start to think you know what’s going on, the story swerves into uncharted territory. And it continues to swerve and tease throughout.

Martyrs toys with the conventions of the horror genre like a sadistic cat mercilessly clawing and playing with a defenceless mouse. Genre and audience expectations are shredded and left to bleed, much like the protagonists, all over the place. The film offers up a few genuine surprises along the way and several plot twists are used here that other, lesser films would have saved for their climax.



The film begins intriguingly with a young girl, Lucie, fleeing from a warehouse she’s been held captive in. For how long we know not – this is just the first of many questions Martyrs poses throughout its running time that will have you salivating for answers. All we know for now is that she is battered and bruised and bloody and running for her life. The stark imagery recalls the famous photograph, by Nick Ut, of a young girl running bleeding and naked from the bombed Vietnamese village of Trang Bang in 1972. After we follow her experiences at a children’s home and her tentative friendship with another girl, Anna, the narrative follows Lucie as she bursts into the house of her suspected former captors as they sit down for breakfast. At this stage, the film briefly resembles a typical ‘home invasion’ flick akin to Funny Games or Ils (Them); however it soon becomes obvious this is not how things will continue to play out.

Like the subject matter, the film soon transcends this approach and adopts an almost spiritual glean as a meditation on the nature of suffering, guilt, redemption and existentialism unfurls from beneath the bloodshed and endless torture.

The violence – and there is a lot of violence – is blunt and realistic. Nothing occurs to lift the audience out of the film, such as CGI or spasmodic editing (a common staple of today’s impatient and stylised horror flicks; all strobe cuts and hyper pacing). Every blow that’s dealt in this film plunges you deeper into its murky depths. At one stage though the violence just simply becomes unbearable, and its methodical and systematic occurrences run the risk of rendering it mundane and numbing. One suspects this is the point though, as a commentary on violence in horror and why we as an audience choose to experience this facet of cinema. Laugier seems to be saying that if we want violence and suffering then we’ve come to the right place. However he is not just content to create scenes of bodily devastation – he also wants us to think. We are almost snapped out of the story into the realm of repeating ‘Its only a movie, its only a movie’, before we are yanked off into another extraordinary direction and sucked back into the compelling story...



The acting is solid throughout and the special effects courtesy of the late Benoit Lestang, are startling in their simplicity and effectiveness. The morality and ideology of the film, for all its physiological horror, maintains a contemplative and almost spiritual essence – a rare thing in the genre. Something undeniable pulls us into the midst of it all and holds our attention – the audience will find itself wanting answers.
There is a lofty justification for the bloodshed and pain, which successfully negates crassness and even pretension and goes some way to reflect contemporary society’s evolving attitudes towards what counts as ‘suffering’ and our need for answers concerning our place in this universe and what comes after...

The dénouement, when it comes, is utterly surprising and yet truly fitting for a film that dares to be so different.
A transcendental horror film guaranteed to jolt your thoughts as much as your nervous system.