Saturday, 30 January 2010

Long Weekend

2008
Dir. Jamie Blanks

Suburban couple Peter and Carla (Jim Caviezel and Claudia Karvan) take a weekend vacation in the hopes of repairing their crumbling relationship. The couple show an absolute lack of respect for their surroundings and amongst other things, drop litter, bicker with each other, constantly spray insecticides, bicker with each other, accidently kill a baby dugong, bicker with each other and are generally unable to conceal their utter contempt for one another, or nature. As the tension between the two escalates, nature itself seems to strike back against them. Is something supernatural afoot, or is the squabbling, insular couple losing their grip on reality?

Australian horror movies have been making quite an impact on the horror genre recently, though the country has a history of genre movies including classics such as Mad Max, Razorback and Picnic at Hanging Rock. More recently with films such as Wolf Creek, Rogue, Lake Mungo and Undead, filmmakers have begun to explore the darker recesses of the outback once more. The original Long Weekend was an eco-horror crossed with a distressing domestic drama in which an estranged couple attempt to salvage their marriage by escaping into the bush to get away from it all and rekindle old feelings. What they get though is far worse than either of them could have imagined as the very landscape seems to conspire against them due to their lack of care for it or each other…

Director Jamie Blanks – no stranger to horror having already helmed Aussie shocker Storm Warning and the old-school slasher flicks Urban Legend and Valentine – has teamed up with the writer of the original screenplay to revisit a story that is still as relevant as ever in its approach to contemporary relationships and mankind’s destruction of the earth. From the outset, Blanks conveys a sense of how vast and isolated the Australian outback is. Lush cinematography effortlessly captures the beauty – and potential danger – inherent in the vast expanse of untamed lands untouched by civilisation. The eerie otherworldliness of the outback at times seems to evoke an atmosphere simply dripping with an unnameable dread. The scenes at night fully utilise the weird noises and sounds that come from the surrounding bush – the results are often immensely creepy. Stunning wildlife photography captures all manner of weird and wonderful beasts that potentially harbour all kinds of threats to man.

Not a lot of ‘action’ occurs in the film – but Blanks keeps things suspenseful by creating a strangely menacing and creepy atmosphere that constantly suggests something bad is suddenly going to happen. Events are a little predictable, especially as they rush towards the inevitable climax – which is signposted obviously enough – but the ambiguity and the two central performances should keep viewers on their toes.

The couple themselves deliver fine performances, though their constant squabbling and picking at each other ensures we can never really fully side with either of them. Both are selfish and unsympathetic – though at times it seems they weren’t always this way as a couple of isolated intimate moments are shared. They have lost their way – both figuratively and actually. At various stages throughout the plot both characters seem to have become locked in a sort of existential loophole in which they become lost and appear to be going in circles, passing the same landmarks and situations again and again. They have become locked into the bitter cycle that their relationship has become, and the hate they project onto one another and the landscape around them is soon thrown right back at them.

A particularly tense scene features Peter going for a swim off the deserted beach. The camera follows him quite closely and at times all we can see is what he sees - water. Lots of water – and fuck knows what is gliding around under the surface, waiting to pounce… Wider shots give us the undeniable impression of his insignificance in relation to the ocean – he is but a speck. Carla, walking on the beach, notices a large dark shape under the water rapidly advancing towards her hubby, and as she tries to alert him, things become very taut indeed…

The couple’s obvious contempt for each other could be manifesting itself in paranoia, together with the new strange and potentially hostile surroundings they find themselves in. Are the couple projecting their anger and fear and paranoia into their surrounding space? Or is nature actually turning against them? The frenzied bird attack and the vengeful adult dugong – seemingly dead though still able to move up the beach when no one is watching – provide particularly memorable moments. As does Peter’s discovery of a family campervan and the fate of its inhabitants… Chilling stuff.

Long Weekend won’t be for everyone, although viewers with an open mind and a penchant for slow-burning, suggestive psychological horror may find much to enjoy. Blanks’ remake was interesting enough to make me very keen to check out the original.

The two disc LONG WEEKEND (cert. 15) will be released on DVD (£17.99) by Showbox Entertainment on 8th February 2010. Special Features include: Director’s Production Diary; Interview Gallery (Claudia Karvan; Everett De Roche; Tobey Eggleston); Deleted Scene (Jim and the Ducks); ‘Making of’ featurette; ‘Taming the Wild’ featurette; Peter’s Death – Behind the Scenes with Grant Page and Roger Ward; English 2.0 and 5.1 audio options; chapter selection; trailer.

Classic ‘Behind the Couch’ Moments #101: Dr Who and the Daleks

As you may or may not be aware, this blog takes its name from a phrase in popular culture that apparently originated from commentary on Doctor Who – namely the actions taken by young children being frightened by episodes of the show - particularly during the 1970s series’. According to Sam Leith, who wrote an article titled ‘Worshipping Doctor Who from behind the sofa’, the cliché that Doctor Who had us ‘hiding behind the couch’ whilst watching it – ‘is more telling in its tone than its questionable factuality. It connotes nostalgia and a pleasurable mixture of fright and fascination - but above all it connotes domesticity. It united fear and soft furnishings in the British mind.’

According to that bastion of reliability, Wikipedia, The Economist actually went so far as to present this notion of "hiding behind the sofa whenever the Daleks appear" as a British cultural institution on an equal par with Bovril and ‘tea-time’. Indeed, the phrase is so strongly associated with Doctor Who in the UK, that in 1991 the Museum of the Moving Image in London named their exhibition celebrating Doctor Who "Behind the Sofa".

As the first ‘Classic Behind the Couch Moment’ to be posted on this blog, it seemed only fitting I turn to the show that spawned the turn of phrase the blog takes its name from. And what key moment within the entire history of Doctor Who is more fitting to select than that of the Doc’s main source of conflict and one of the show’s main providers of iconic imagery – the Daleks…

The Daleks are alien organisms from the planet Skaro. They dwell within tank-like mechanical casings and despite not being able to manoeuvre stairs, they became a powerful race intent on universal conquest and destroying, nay, EXTERMINATING anything and everything that stood in their way. They were the Doctor’s main nemeses. The Daleks had every emotion mechanically removed except hate; leaving them with a desire to purge the universe of all non-Dalek life. The reason they were perhaps so disturbing for young viewers was their distinct lack of reasoning or empathy. Appearing on screen for the first time in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and subsequently sending the younger viewers of the show, and some of the older ones too I’ll bet, scurrying behind the couch, the Daleks became a main staple of the show and continue to appear in it even today.

Doctor Who is one of those shows that are remembered for its moments that induce not only a palpable dread but also inspire a loving nostalgia – the two often combine to create a potent effect. Indeed, the idea of being scared is linked in with notions of growing up and rites of passage. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim remarked on this notion of being scared by certain things as a child when he said 'As children, we need monsters to instruct us in the ways of the world.' Images of bizarre alien races and hideous beasts were broadcast directly into our living rooms as we ate dinner on a Saturday evening thanks to Doctor Who. Back in those days, most families probably only had one TV and everyone would have gathered around it – it was a ‘family experience.’ Nostalgia mixed with memories of feeling spine-tingling dread whilst trying to eat your fish fingers and chips for many people, myself included, all stems back to Doctor Who

Being scared in the safe environment of one’s own home adds to the nostalgic experience – safe fear in a domestic setting.
I myself recall being frightened when watching Doctor Who as a youngster. I’m not usually one to put too much of myself or my personal experiences into posts on this blog, though I thought I could make an exception this once as it kind of ties in with the whole ethos of this post. As you can see from the photo below, I had a rather close encounter with a Dalek that, at the time, proved to be an experience which with I wasn’t particularly enamoured. I recall much screaming and crying and kicking and generally not being very cooperative, to the point where the guy inside the Dalek felt so bad he actually climbed out of it to apologise for scaring me. For some reason this, far from abating my fear of Daleks and shattering the illusion that they were real real, still filled me with an unnamed dread and prompted my parents to recognise a wonderful Kodak moment I will forever be thankful for...

Me (aged 4 or 5) with a Dalek. Good times!

Friday, 29 January 2010

Random Creepy Scene # 587,336: Twin Peaks

James, Donna and Maddy gather in Donna’s living room to sing a song. The three are united in their grief over Laura’s death. Donna realises that James is falling for Maddy, Laura’s cousin, because of her uncanny resemblance to Laura. After the song, Donna leaves abruptly and James chases after her. Left alone in the living room, Maddy – who seems to share the same susceptible nature that Laura, and indeed several of the other townsfolk exhibited and just seems able to sense when something is 'wrong' – feels a dark, creepy presence in the house. Suddenly she sees ‘Bob’ a filthy, lecherous man Laura wrote about in her diary, claiming he abused her and would eventually kill her, slowly appear in the room. He quietly skulks towards her from the other side of the room and we see it all from her point of view as she sits rooted to the spot with fear.

The sight of this dirty, carnal beast-man slowly advancing towards us and crawling over the couch with warped, slightly unreal looking movements (like so many of the series’ ‘dream moments’ or ‘visions’, this scene was also filmed backwards to create an off-kilter feel) was overwhelmingly creepy. His presence does not belong in the house – he has invaded a clean and supposedly safe and cosy domestic space – which makes the scene all the more effective. His lustful glare doesn’t bode well for Maddy and her reaction is highly disturbing… The others rush back into the room when they hear her screams of terror...




Twin Peaks was a series that was practically sopping in an eerie, melancholy atmosphere sprinkled with absurd humour and hefty sexual underpinnings. The central theme was the exploration of the seedy underbelly of a small, seemingly mundane town on the US/Canadian border and the murder investigation of Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer. Each week delved deeper into the darkness that lurks just beneath the surface of small town Americana. This town was anything but mundane.

But they brewed a DAMN fine coffee...

Monday, 25 January 2010

Pontypool

2008
Dir. Bruce McDonald

The small town of Pontypool descends into chaos when the residents become infected by a mysterious virus that seems to spread through the English language itself. Inside the local radio station, the small production crew of shock-Jock Grant Mazzy’s show continue to broadcast news and updates of the ensuing chaos outside as the town spirals into madness. They are unaware though, that their broadcasts may very well be adding to the contagion…

The last decade has produced a staggering array of films that, since 28 Days Later, have attempted their own spin on the zombie/infection/virus sub-genre; and like all cinematic cycles, this one also produced some titles that were much more original and creative than others. Pontypool is perhaps one of the most striking and interesting films to have come out of this resurgence in the popularity of the zombie flick. It is based on the 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything and was adapted for the screen by its author Tony Burgess. Contrary to my initial assumption, it is not a British/Welsh thriller – it takes its name from the other small town called Pontypool – the one in Canada, not Wales.

Pontypool is, strictly speaking, not a zombie film - though it certainly exploits and subverts a number of the same conventions and clichés that exist in zombie movies. It also expertly draws on the early films of John Carpenter – siege movies inspired by Rio Bravo in which a small group of people are confined in a limited space while outside forces attempt to get in - usually to do harm – and also seems to have been heavily inspired by Orson Welles’ radio drama War of the Worlds, in which a devastating global alien invasion was reported straight into the homes of horrified listeners. Interestingly, a radio play of Pontypool was recorded alongside the film and is available on the Blu-Ray release.

The film opens with Grant Mazzy (Steven McHattie – so good in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence) driving through the dark and snowy early morning to the radio station. He has a strange encounter with a woman in the middle of nowhere and soon continues on his journey. This encounter basically begins building the unshakable air of foreboding that wafts throughout the rest of the film. Once Mazzy reaches the radio station – nicely located in the basement of a church on the outskirts of town – like the other characters already there, we don’t leave its drab interior for the remainder of the film. Director Bruce McDonald uses the limited location to his advantage, carefully building up the sense of dread and utilising the space to create a palpable sense of claustrophobia.

The suspense continues to mount as information about the carnage outside is relayed to us through conversations Mazzy has with his traffic and weather reporter who is located at a vantage point above the town. Characters describe the actions occurring outside the walls of their sanctuary and discuss possible causes and solutions throughout the film. Aside from a few bloody moments, most of the violence and chaos is left solely for the audience to imagine in their own head – one of the main reasons why Pontypool is so effective as a thriller. There’s nothing quite so scary as the images and scenarios dreamt up in the dark recesses of one’s own mind.

Another interesting and highly original concept contained within the film is the virus itself and how it spreads. Completely negating the usual sort of conventions featuring a mysterious virus that spreads through bites and scratches, Pontypool boasts the devastating and mentally debilitating virus that spreads through sound waves and has infected language itself. When the infection takes hold, the hapless victims become zombie-like. When they eventually break into the radio station, they press themselves against the sound-proof glass of the booth – providing what is arguably the most familiar looking ‘zombie’ imagery of the film. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the central idea is the manifestation of it; namely the jargon and nonsensical jibber-jabber spouted by the infected. This was touched on before in Kerry Anne Mullaney’s low-fi shocker The Dead Outside, in which the infected where portrayed as somehow seeming to retain an aspect of their former selves due to the fact they retained the ability to speak and mumble random thoughts and mindlessly rant. The effects, as in this film, are quite chilling. The idea of words as virus is most intriguing – and interestingly, only certain words are infected.

Perhaps it might be best if I let director Bruce McDonald explain this himself, as he did at Rue Morgue's 2008 Festival of Fear. ‘There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually its words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can't express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.’

With a lean cast and rich, full-bodied writing, the characters, particularly Lisa Houle as producer Sydney, become people we care for - and when their already small numbers begin to decrease, the effect is particularly crushing. One aspect of the film that didn’t particularly work was the rather annoying doctor who is dropped into the story – far too conveniently – to spout endless exposition and explain what the virus is and how the others might attempt to avoid contracting it. His presence opens up a number of plot holes that threaten to mar the film’s overall integrity. As soon as he enters the narrative, the film begins to fall apart.

Audiences wanting something truly visceral may not appreciate the suggestive aspects of Pontypool - a quirky, highly original and daring film that allows itself to be different.

DVD label Kaleidoscope Entertainment is poised to unleash Pontypool in the UK on January 25th. Extra features on the DVD include cast and director interviews, two short movies and a documentary about the sound design of the film titled Behind the Sound. The Blu-ray will exclusively contain Pontypool – The Radio Play.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Audrey Rose

1977
Dir. Robert Wise

Janice and Bill Templeton (Marsha Mason and John Beck), an affluent middle class couple living in New York, look on helplessly as their comfortable existence is shattered when the mysterious and charismatic Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins) enters their lives. He declares that their daughter Ivy (Susan Swift) is actually the reincarnation of his dead daughter Audrey Rose. Is he telling the truth? Or is he a raving psychotic they should cross the street to avoid? When Ivy begins to experience weird seizures and hallucinations, the couple have no choice but to accept the help of Hoover and the family are plunged into a nightmare they may never wake up from…

Director Robert Wise began his eclectic career as an editor for RKO. He was given his big break by producer Val Lewton directing the poetic horror sequel The Curse of the Cat People – more a sensitive study of child psychology than an out and out horror flick. Wise would return to the horror arena again with titles such as The Body Snatcher and his startlingly atmospheric Lewton homage The Haunting – another testament to how effective the ‘less is more’ approach to horror can be. Not one to rest on his laurels, Wise preferred to span the genres, making his mark with a wide range of titles such as The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Towards the end of his career he returned to horror once again, with the markedly less effective Audrey Rose.

Beginning intriguingly enough, Audrey Rose opens with a shocking car crash in which a little girl is killed. From this point on a couple of parallels with Don’t Look Now can be drawn – both films open with the death of a young girl and the remainder of the film charts the varying attempts of a parent to get over this death, all the while suspecting their dead child is attempting to contact them somehow from beyond death. Here the similarities end. Audrey Rose initially unravels as a mysterious stranger stalks a young family – the beardy-weirdy Hoover is seemingly obsessed with their daughter Ivy. This seems to coincide with Ivy experiencing some very weird shit indeed – distressing dreams and seizures during which she believes she is burning to death. As the tension mounts and the intrigue continues to swirl throughout proceedings, the film switches gear as the bizarre Hoover invites the Templeton’s to dinner and explains that he believes their daughter is the reincarnation of his daughter. They are obviously sceptical and warn him to stay away – some of the looks exchanged over this particular dinner table are priceless. However certain events happen that force Janice to ask Hoover for his help, and so begins another segment of the film – the ongoing debate about whether or not reincarnation is real. The old religion vs. science vs. spirituality arguments are dragged out and dusted off, as are the ‘who am I and what is my life for’ ponderings and verbally flung about the screen by all involved as they act their faces off.

The film is peppered with a few memorable moments and images, such as the scenes in which Ivy flings herself violently around the rather nicely lit apartment as we watch from outside through the rain dappled windows. During one of her attacks, she ‘burns’ her hands on a cold window. Another mind-boggling though admittedly striking scene features a group of school girls dancing around a giant snowman they’ve just set fire to as an entranced Ivy crawls slowly towards the flames…

When Hoover kidnaps Ivy, the film - which began as a creepy tale about the potentially unsettling nature of reincarnation and a father’s irrepressible grief - does another u-turn and plunges headlong into a semi-ridiculous and melodramatic courtroom drama.

Anthony Hopkins is no stranger to horror – two years after this film, he would go on to star in the chilling ventriloquist-dummy horror Magic and then lock horns with Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, via some little film or other about a transsexual serial killer and some quiet baby sheep. While Audrey Rose is a dreadfully uneven film, Hopkins – on the most part – remains the most mesmerising aspect of it. When he is onscreen he commands attention. His sinisterly calm demeanour cracks at various intervals to allow us to peek into the fragile and damaged soul of a man who never got over the death of his daughter and remains locked in a heart-wrenching cycle as he searches the world for her – or rather, for whoever she now lives again within. Aside from one or two rather ‘thespiany’ scenes in which Hopkins locks eyebrows with anyone else in the general vicinity and tries to emulate Bela Lugosi with the overuse of his hands, his performance is nuanced and suitably anxious. The rest of the cast deliver performances that range from consistent to downright annoying.

The most resonant thing about the film is its depiction of the misery, perpetual longing and heartache of Elliot Hoover as he desperately tries to reunite with his dead daughter. The notion that our lives are governed by ‘greater forces’ we have no hope of ever comprehending is also successfully evoked throughout the film. The downbeat ending that tries to assure us that Hoover hasn’t given up hope, just ensures events are left on cold note, and for all the emoting onscreen, Audrey Rose is a strangely unfeeling film, and one that despite its seemingly positive message about life, death and reincarnation, was too uneven, bereft of suspense and much too distancing to make any sort of impact. While at times it was thought provoking, it was way too dry and overwrought. The 'tragic' death that occurs at the end of the film, and the fact that it was brought about through utter incompetence, isn't softened any by the idea that Ivy will be reincarnated again... And what of Audrey Rose? Is her soul to be entwined with that of Ivy's for all time? Yes, ambiguity is good - but gaping plot holes posing as ambiguity is not! This might warrant another viewing sometime in the future, but not for a while yet.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

5 Dolls for an August Moon

1970
Dir. Mario Bava

Three couples are invited to spend the weekend at the secluded private island retreat of their ‘friend’, wealthy industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corrà). One of the men, a research scientist, has perfected a secret formula for an industrial resin and the other men are all keen to acquire the rights for it as it promises to be lucrative. Tempers flare as they vie to obtain the formula. Meanwhile their wives indulge in flings with the houseboy. And each other! They soon realise that someone is prepared to kill to get what they want, and they find themselves trapped on the island with a murderer in their midst!

Gosh – that’s a lot to take in. Truth be told though, as soon as you begin to watch 5 Dolls for an August Moon, it becomes apparent that none of the above ‘plot summary’ really matters – all that nonsense about a secret formula is just a rouse to get these volatile, somewhat frisky characters in one limited and secluded location so they can all be bumped off, one by one nonetheless, in what amounts to a highly stylised and uber-kitsch variation on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. And therefore Mario Bava’s earlier body-count flick Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve.

After a marvellously kitsch opening, featuring amongst other things a funky lounge-jazz soundtrack, cravats and big hair, a faux human sacrifice, sexy-sexy dancing, moody glancing and actors draped over various pieces of stylish furniture like fashionable throws, Bava slams on the brakes and the film all but grinds to a halt. As the couples mingle and re-pair off and shag each other’s brains out, Bava’s camera stalks their every move; peering at them from behind corners, zooming in on their misty eyes and skulking up behind them on the beach – all courtesy of Antonio Rinaldi’s masterful cinematography - rendering events strangely creepy even though they have no reason to be.

When the houseboy turns up with a knife in his side, the group take it in their stride. Even when they realise their boat is gone, the phones are dead and they are stranded on the island with a killer in their midst, they still seem fairly at ease with it all and continue their sordid flings and extra-marital affairs. They have a well stocked drinks cabinet and a groovy record collection to keep them swinging through the night you see. When more people start turning up dead, their bodies are delicately wrapped in plastic and they are unceremoniously hung up in a giant meat freezer amongst slabs of meat – not a very subtle touch, but a grimly humorous one. The cast of most movies like this are essentially cattle anyway – they are only there to be murderlised. At least in this film, Bava pokes a little fun at this.


‘What’s that razor for?’


Unlike many of his other films though, with 5 Dolls, Bava chooses to show only the aftermath of each murder and not the act of murder itself. The script becomes impossibly dense and convoluted and there is no way to tell one character apart from another – except for Marie, who is played by sultry giallo beauty Edwige Fenech. All of the affairs between the characters further complicate proceedings.

What 5 Dolls lacks in plot and narrative drive, it certainly makes up for in the visual department. Well what did you expect? This is no ordinary murder mystery film. This is a stylishly orchestrated, elegantly lensed and deliriously kitsch Mario Bava murder mystery film. The director composes his shots like an artist and seats, stands and perfectly poses his actors within the frame of each shot like sitters in a life drawing class, resplendent and chic. And wooden. Their performances aren’t what the film hinges itself on luckily. The film is hinged on atmosphere, style and particular moments that have been meticulously crafted and executed and are scattered throughout the film as little reminders of why Mario Bava is such an imaginative director. One such moment occurs when two guys fighting at the top of a staircase knock over a table full of impossibly ornate crystal balls. As the balls bounce down stairs the camera floats after them as they tumble and roll and flow into a sunken bath with the body of a beautiful dead woman in it, swirls of blood coiling around her; a tackily chic and breathlessly dramatic suicide message in red lipstick on a huge mirror behind her…

Towards the end of the film, when the captain of the yacht returns to the island to pick up the guests, he and his stewards are unable to find a single trace of them. Strangely, they don’t appear to notice the four survivors passed out on the living room floor. Initially it seems as though something supernatural as been casually and belatedly thrown into the mix ala Lisa and the Devil and somehow the characters have become so wrapped up in their own lust and greed, they have passed from one narrative sphere into another and, in the process, become invisible to the captain and his men. This is not the case however, and it is only a matter of moments until a weak narrative explanation is presented, defying all rational explanation and existing in its own absurd logic.

Boasting a groove-tastic score courtesy of Piero Umiliani, more zooms than a Jess Franco movie and a plethora of beauties hanging up inside a meat freezer – 5 Dolls for an August Moon won’t be to everyone’s taste – hell, even Bava considered it his worst film. What it never is though, is boring. Whilst it is not even in the same league as Black Sunday or Kill Baby Kill, or even Blood and Black Lace or The Girl Who Knew Too Much, it is still a curious and quirky lesser-seen Bava film, and one that admirers of his work should seek out.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Thirst

2009
Dir. Park Chan-wook

Father Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), selflessly volunteers for some highly dangerous experiments to develop a vaccine to eradicate a deadly virus. He contracts the disease and seemingly dies, only to return to life and be regarded as a Messiah. He soon discovers to his horror that his immunity comes at a price: he now has a taste for blood, and all those carnal urges he suppressed throughout his life in the priesthood have become too strong to resist. He becomes locked in a bizarre and destructive relationship with Tae-joo (Ok-bin Kim), the wife of an old friend, and the two plummet headlong into a darkly erotic world soaked in the blood of all who cross their paths…

The vampire film has proved to be one of the most versatile, adaptable and popular sub-genres with filmmakers and audiences alike. It appears to be one of those types of film that lends itself so well to reinterpretation whilst maintaining a hardcore of themes and ideas that seem timeless in their appeal and accessibility. Of course, the risk with this is that an abundance of vampire-themed films can render the concept dryer than an (please pardon the dreadful and extremely obvious forthcoming pun) exsanguinated cadaver, bereft of originality and without anything fresh to say.
The recent spate of vampire movies have ranged from the utterly sublime (Let the Right One In) and the provocative (True Blood) to the docile (Twilight) and the downright lame (Daybreakers). Korean director Park Chan-wook’s take on the genre is as quirky, violent and surprising as you’d expect from the man who gave us Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

The film, naturally enough, abounds with shocking images that practically spill out of the screen and into your lap; from the sight of Sang-hyun interrupted from playing his bamboo flute when he begins to violently cough blood – the blood fills his instrument and flows out of the finger holes – to the sight of Tae-joo spewing yet more claret all over a bright white floor. A wonderfully Lynchian moment occurs when a doctor is called to look at Tae-joo. He enters the living room to find her reclining on the couch, the shock of red blood sprayed out on the floor before her, her catatonic mother-in-law in a chair beside her and video footage of the street below playing on a TV monitor behind her…

Chan-wook touches on notions of body-horror and ideas of the physical and the mental/spiritual aspects of what it is to be ‘human’ are discussed throughout. Shades of Cronenberg are swirled into the mix too as a number of images evoke that filmmaker’s distinct oeuvre - Sang-hyun kisses the bruises between Tae-joo’s thighs and they meet in a hospital to see each other – the cold and clinical setting the only place they can carry out their illicit affair. Sang-hyun is shown lying on the floor drinking blood from a patient’s intra-venous drip. A perverted 69 is also created as the duo drink blood from each other while they lay in bed. Absurd humour is rampant throughout the film, particularly in the scenes in which Tae-joo’s drowned husband returns to haunt the pair as a manifestation of their guilt over his murder.

The early scenes featuring the bandaged priest have a distinct comic book aesthetic to them and the character feels strangely iconic. Whilst there are moments that have been shown before in vampire films, Chan-wook still manages to dowse proceedings in a distinct magic-realism that is both beautiful and blood-dark and always refreshing.


Kang-ho Song imbues his character with a quiet intensity that gradually becomes a sturdy resignation as his fate dawns on him. Sang-hyun remains sympathetic as he fights against his increasingly carnal desires. The character of Tae-joo is also painted in intimate strokes – fully enhanced by an astounding performance from Kim Ok-bin. The tragedy of their relationship is that it was only in ‘death’ that Sang-hyun could give her a taste of what it means to be alive, beautifully illustrated in a scene depicting them jumping from rooftop to rooftop throughout the city. Surely a reference to the ‘hopping vampire’ of Asian cinema?

In terms of sound design, Thirst is a very squelchy film – the licking and sucking and guzzling of blood is at times nauseating and dizzying, but always seemingly present. And very audible.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the exploration of how the characters attempt to cope with their new existence – how they attempt to make it as normal as possible. Their home is painted bright white (which will make any blood spilt in it look all the more striking) and lit with the harshest of lights to compensate for the lack of sunlight in their lives. The couple also record the hustle and bustle of the street below their home on a video camera and play the footage back on TV monitors that substitute windows, throughout the night hours.

Spoilers ahoy!

When Sang-hyun turns off the car engine in the film’s closing scenes, there is a bittersweet sense of finality. We know what is to follow and it’s strangely heartbreaking. All the more so because of Tae-joo’s efforts to make him change his mind and then her own desperate attempts to hide from the rising sun – for the first time in her life she actually fights to live. The last scene has few words but it doesn’t need them. Chan-wook conveys all he needs to with astounding visuals and the achingly beautiful resignation of the two characters as they prepare to die. The moment when the camera pulls back to reveal the car has stopped on top of a cliff overlooking the sea is breathtaking and the final shot of the shoes falling to the ground is quietly powerful and poetic.

While Thirst cannot claim to be the most original or the greatest vampire film ever made, Chan-wook’s determination to at least attempt to create something a little different marks this film as one of the most remarkable and refreshing vampire flicks for some time.

THIRST (cert. 18) will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Palisades Tartan on 25th January 2010. DVD Features include a UK exclusive interview with Park Chan-wook.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Tripper

2006
Dir. David Arquette

A group of free-loving, pot-smoking, acid-dropping hippies attend a music and camping festival only to find themselves stalked and brutally butchered by an axe-wielding psychotic killer wearing a Ronald Reagan mask. Aided by his faithful killer dog, Nancy. Naturally.

David Arquette’s directorial feature debut is a loving throwback to gritty backwoods slashers from the Eighties. Arquette actually sticks fairly rigidly to the preconceived slasher coda. A pre-credits-like ‘flashback’ to the 80's depicts a young boy who, after seeing his father and lumberjack foreman being attacked by a deforesting protestor and subsequently arrested by the police, goes on a killing spree with a chainsaw.
Cut to present day and the introduction of 'Final Girl' Samantha (Jaime King) who, still reeling from her breakup with an abusive boyfriend, joins her eclectic bunch of kerr-azy pot-smoking friends (who resemble a really fucked up version of the Scooby gang) and heads to the American Free Love Festival in woody Northern California. To his credit, Arquette has gathered together a pretty cool bunch of alt/indie actors including Jason Mewes, Lukas Haas, Balthazar Getty and Marsha Thomason who delve into their mainly unsavoury archetypes characters with dark relish.

The Tripper is a mixed bag really, for whilst Arquette displays an undeniable talent for creating and sustaining a creepy atmosphere with bizarre and off kilter humour thrown in for good measure, he isn’t able to muster any real sense of tension or suspense. The story is at times a jumbled mess, but it still exudes a cheeky wit and shameless trashiness that is still perfectly entertaining and manages to exhibit more than a hint of old school slasher movie ethos. However, what began as mildly ridiculous schlock-homage, soon degenerates and plummets face first into pure, outright ludicrousness with the discovery of a backwoods shack decked out in candles and Ronald Reagan memorabilia. The film also has a weird political slant – though this is played for laughs and highlights criticism flung at previous slasher movies for being morally conservative in their outlook. Arquette takes the subtext of slasher movies and makes it ‘over-text’. Picking up right where John Carpenter’s Halloween left off and exaggerating it to warped proportions. Carpenter’s seminal slasher is often regarded as the film that marked the beginning of the end of the Love Generation – with its depictions of anyone caught dabbling in activities associated with the free-loving ‘hippy’ and liberal Sixties, including drinking, doing drugs or engaging in premarital bedroom activities, falling victim to a seemingly highly conservative maniac - an action Carpenter has since apologised for!




Arquette obviously has a keen eye for striking visuals – the scenes in the forest at night are particularly effective: all fog-shrouded with moonlight streaming through trees to silhouette the figures moving within them. At times though the visuals, while imaginative, are a tad distracting and really lift the viewer out of the film and break what little tension Arquette was able to muster. This is especially the case during the film’s climactic chase scene as Samantha is pursued through the forest after she’s been spiked with drugs and is hallucinating wildly. Psychedelic colours and shapes swirl around onscreen and characters are framed through a kaleidoscopic lens. Woah man, trippy. Gnarly. Etc etc. Having said that, the onslaught of wild visuals never bores and easily conveys the drug addled, warped perspective of the characters. The editing is also designed to purposely disorientate, particularly in conjunction with the psychedelic visuals that convey character’s tripping perspectives.

The Woodstock-type festival populated with randomly naked, free-loving pot-heads is also effectively realised, highlighting another troupe of Arquette’s in his canny knack for recreating the look and tone of a bygone era and creating recognisable characters to inhabit it. His love for old slasher films is also evident in the score, courtesy of Jimmy Haun and David Wittman, boasting wizened synth drones. The music also features militant, distorted patriotic drums and a warped rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Odd.



Thomas Jane is particularly good as the town sheriff and Courtney Cox-Arquette also makes a small, though admittedly humorous cameo as an animal rights extremist who is torn to shreds by the killer’s rabid dog, Nancy. The rest of the cast do fine jobs with the often deliberately trashy material - David Arquette even cameos as lovable redneck Muff. Aww. Paul Reubens however, picks up the award for most thankless role ever. His devastatingly unfunny and woefully unnecessary appearances really break up the flow of an otherwise rather entertaining movie. His comeuppance comes far too late – but is kind of appropriate for his dreadful character. Poor Paul Reubens. I’m sure he was just glad to be working again.

While silly and overly jokey, the film is also immensely violent – hell, ridiculously violent. The story unravels in the most chaotic and frenzied way possible, and the bursts of brutal violence and gory effects are often ill at ease with the fart gags and tit jokes. A particularly memorable and very violent scene that is essentially played for laughs involves the killer bursting into a rave party and hacking up the revellers. This is a frenzy of a scene with psychotic editing and calamitous music.

A bewildering blend of inappropriate humour, brutal violence and loving homage to old slasher movies, The Tripper is a mess of movie that still somehow manages to work. Just. Perhaps for hardcore slasher fans only. Or hardcore David Arquette fans only. Or your Mom!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht

1979
Dir. Werner Herzog

AKA Nosferatu the Vampyre

Real-estate agent Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) leaves his hometown of Wismar and travels to Transylvania to complete a property sale for Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski). When Dracula sees a photo of Jonathan’s wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) he is captivated and determines to make her his. Drinking Jonathan’s blood and locking him in the castle, the Count departs for Wismar, bringing with him plague-infected rats. As the inhabitants of Wismar fall victim to the plague and to the Count’s thirst for blood, Lucy realises she must take matters into her own hands to save her soul and that of her now seemingly traumatised husband…

Werner’s Nosferatu is a respectful and masterful remake/homage to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Murnau couldn’t obtain permission to adapt Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula, so he went ahead and crafted his film anyway – altering it slightly so as to avoid prosecution. A law suit was still filed by Stoker’s widow and all prints of the film were ordered to be destroyed. Luckily, a few survived and the film is now regarded as an early classic of German Expressionist and horror cinema. Indeed, Herzog considers it to be one of the finest examples of German cinema and his respect for the source material is obvious throughout his own version of the film.

The film opens with astounding imagery - morbid and strangely beautiful (an apt description for the film as a whole) with various shots of preserved, petrified corpses, grinning grotesquely from their dark eternity. From the outset, the film is moody, solemn and conjures a striking otherworldly atmosphere. Herzog pays homage to the original film but is careful to also stamp it with his own sensibilities. A number of iconic shots are not repeated, instead Herzog creates a few more of his own. The shot of the Count floating dreamlike over the bow of the ship and seeming to hover in the air for a moment as his clawed hands move slowly through the night air, is as beautiful as it is chilling. Another unnerving and wonderful moment occurs as Lucy sits in front of her mirror brushing her hair. A dark shadow seems to move across the room and her door closes – out of nowhere the Count appears at her side. The very magic of cinema seeps out of the film during scenes like these.


Moods and emotions are created and conveyed through facial expressions, hand movements and Herzog’s artful framing devices. This is a very painterly film that abounds in exquisitely framed and composed shots. The actors are placed precisely in their shots and all of them seem to utilise highly expressionistic acting; indeed dialogue throughout the film is markedly sparse.
Kinski is a revelation. His Count Dracula is one of cinema’s most interesting vampiric carnations – fully aware of his own mortality and the pain and silent resignation it brings. Unable to grow old and die, at times it appears his ‘condition’ is a curse he longs to be free of. His associations with plagues and rats and disease carriers is also quite an interesting one, seeming to pre-empt the idea of vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS. His hand gestures alone are able to convey his character’s sense of pain and solitude, as they slowly dance about in the air, spider-like and sinister. While he appears deeply melancholy, he is also devastatingly threatening – an interesting dichotomy that Kinski takes in his masterful stride.
Adjani’s fragile beauty belies the strength she bestows upon Lucy, portraying her as a strong-willed and selfless woman. Her eyes are the eyes of a silent-film actress – wide and expressive.


Herzog adds a melancholy and downright sexual edge to proceedings, and this is nowhere near as evident as it is in the film’s last scenes. The Count comes to Lucy as she sleeps – unaware of her plan to distract him until dawn. Guzzling thirstily at her throat he gorges himself on her blood and as he languidly lies on top of her, bloated with her blood, he clamps one of those spidery, skeletal hands to her breast. Her determination to save her soul and that of her husband results in the ultimate sacrifice and the film ends in the oddest manner – whilst there is bleakness and tragedy, a dark and bizarre humour is also evident.

The score of Nosferatu, courtesy of Popol Vuh, utilises traditional Georgian folk melodies and songs to breathtaking and haunting effect. Herzog apparently also asked Florian Fricke to contribute a number of compositions to the film, and the results are some of the most striking choral pieces ever produced for cinema. The opening piece, a dark and moody chorus that effortlessly conveys an unshakable sense of fear and dread gradually trickles into a lighter, almost pastoral conclusion with hints of folk lullabies and prog-rock thrown in for good measure – as kittens playing with yarn appear on screen nonetheless! The music swirls together with Herzog’s unforgettable imagery to create a spine-tingling and evocative tapestry of dark and elegant moodiness. The scene depicting Lucy wandering trancelike through the town square as the population, who have accepted their fate and decide to live their lives in stilted and debauched celebration before they die, descends into plague-stricken madness and anarchy is accompanied by a traditional Georgian choral piece entitled Tsintskaro that swerves delicately between unattainable majesty, deep mourning and intimate contemplation and is nothing short of moving. This piece was used by Kate Bush on her album Hounds of Love (an album that consequently hangs heavy with sublime references to horror cinema) during the penultimate track Hello Earth – a song that rounds off a conceptual narrative of someone who is lost at sea and beginning to drown. Fortunately the album ends on a positive note as the narrator is rescued from the water at dawn. Ooops. Note to self – this is not a blog about Kate Bush. But there’s an idea!


Anyway, where was I? Oh yes.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is a highly atmospheric and moody film, positively saturated in a morose dread and preoccupation with decay and death. Solemn and almost theistical in its tone, the film is an unforgettable experience, by turns terrifying, deeply melancholy and hopelessly mournful and one that should haunt your thoughts long afterwards.

Trivia: The part of Van Helsing was played by late Belgian writer Roland Topor, who also wrote the screenplay for the classic/cult French animation Fantastic Planet (1973) and the screenplay for the Roman Polanski’s dark and paranoid The Tenant (1976).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

House of Mortal Sin

1976
Dir. Pete Walker
AKA The Confessional

Jenny, (Susan Penhaligon) a troubled young girl, seeks help at her local church. Unfortunately for her, the sexually frustrated priest Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp) she confesses to, becomes obsessed with her. He begins to stalk her, however as his increasingly unhinged mindset continues to unravel, it becomes obvious he will stop at nothing, including blackmail and murder, just to get close to Jenny.

‘He's gone out again. You're all alone ... with me.’

If House of Whipcord was Walker’s attack on the Establishment and the penal system, House of Mortal Sin is surely his scathing defilement of the Roman Catholic Church. Released in the States as The Confessional it plunges the viewer into even darker territory than before.

Walker drew on his own fears and opinions as a lapsed Catholic to create a more considered and mature film than most viewers would have expected, particularly given its lurid title and somewhat taboo subject matter. Typical of Walker though, the film was a deliberate attempt to shock audiences and critics at the time. The film is the concluding segment of an unofficial ‘trilogy’ of sorts along with House of Whipcord and Frightmare.


As mentioned, Walker’s own dislike of Catholicism – based on his upbringing in a Catholic School – lends a certain gravitas to the provocative points that he makes about the dangers of organised religion, fanaticism, abuse of authority and the power Priests wield over their ‘flock.’ Walker commented on priesthood, openly stating: ‘It’s such an uncivilised way of life … All that hypocrisy.’ The film is lent further power in light of the recent revelations of abusive priests in the Catholic Church and the steps taken to keep it a secret.

The thought of a murderous priest slowly killing off members of his congregation is not a pleasant or subtle one. Like most of Walker’s ‘villains’ however, Meldrum is a well written, three dimensional character and we often see him during moments of quiet contemplation as he struggles with his actions and their consequences.
As Father Meldrum becomes increasingly obsessed with Jenny, he believes that he can ‘save’ her from her sinful ways and promiscuous lifestyle, while simultaneously blackmailing her. To say that this guy has double standards is an understatement, yet Sharp’s assured performance enables us to pity him as well as abhor him for his ghastly deeds. Walker regular Sheila Keith’s portrayal of the overbearing housekeeper also helps heap flesh onto the bones of another full blooded character.


Opening with the suicide of a pregnant teenager, the tone of House of Mortal Sin grows progressively graver – it’s later revealed that father Meldrum drove her to suicide, and perhaps countless other lost souls seeking redemption in the arms of the church. Matters are made more complicated by his curate, Father Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley), who is beginning to doubt his vocation, and embarks on a relationship with Jenny's sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham). The warmth omitted from these three provides respite from the film's overwhelming gloom. This being a Pete Walker film though, things don't turn out well for our three hipsters.

Driven to the brink of sanity by his own repressed sexuality and guilt-ridden past, Father Meldrum also has to contend with the stifling hold his senile mother and obsessive housekeeper Miss Brabazon (Sheila Keith) have over him and his own fanatical views on the declining morals of society. It comes as no surprise to discover he has been driven to madness, corruption and murder. Sharp’s tortured portrayal of the tormented priest lends the film an undeniable air of credibility, even as the depraved Father sermonises on the virtues of living a pure and moral life while committing brutal murders. Characters are killed by all manner of theistically linked relics such as poisoned wafers, rosary beads and incense burners. As comedic as this may sound, the execution scenes are chilling to the core and are perhaps some of the nastiest Walker has filmed. The film’s tone is relentlessly bleak and grim, yet the effective and really quite compelling script by Walker and regular writing partner David McGillivray consistently draws us into the story and further into the dark recesses of one man’s unfolding madness.


Interestingly, Walker approached Peter Cushing to play the role of the crazed Priest. Cushing however had to decline due to prior commitments.

House of Mortal Sin is a relentlessly taut and dark excursion into a debauched and murky place that will leave its remnants on the viewer long after the credits roll…

Friday, 8 January 2010

Pass this Award onto seven other people in seven days or you will DIE!

The blogosphere has resembled something of a Brian Yuzna inspired orgiastic frenzy recently, with everyone giving everyone else an award for something or other. Just as I was about to start feeling sorry for myself, a couple of nice bloggers said nice things about Behind the Couch and even chucked me a couple of beauteous awards too.
I’m not really one for speeches or anything, so I’ll just say thanks very much to Christine at Fascination with Fear, Carl at I Like Horror Movies and Matthew at Movietone News for their kind words.

Basically I’m just going to take the awards and run. But before I do, I wanted to mention a few blogs I enjoy frequenting.

Radiation Cinema

A wonderful site dedicated to Atomic-era B-movies and monster movie classics from the 50s. Each film is painstakingly dissected and eloquently discussed by Mykal, who has actually just received a nomination from Total Film for Best Newcomer Blog – drop by and vote for him. http://www.totalfilm.com/features/2010-blog-awards-best-newcomer-blog/

Anchorwoman in Peril

Timid librarian by day, frenzied fan of gory slasher movies by night, Ross’s fantastic trawls through TV-movie thrillers, stalk ’n’ slash films, women in peril movies, Midnight movies and all things murder, mystery and suspense have kept me up past my bedtime on many a dark and stormy night…

Carfax Abbey

When Matthew isn’t contributing to Screenonline, Philosophy Now, The Dark Side, a whole stack of those 101 Whatevers You Must Whatever before You Die-type books or indeed working on his own forthcoming book Pre-Code Horror: American Horror Films 1929-34 – he can be found skulking about at Carfax Abbey reflecting on all things vintage horror and pre-code horror, as well as a host of Hammer Horror related treats. A damn fine site worth losing yourself in for a few hours.

Cavalcade of Perversions

Whether she is exploring the annuls of schlock cinema, exploitation flicks, horror movies, B-movie hell or just keeping us updated on the on-going exploits of her kerr-azy cats, you can be assured that Jenn will do it with inimitable panache, flair, humour and gin-soaked class. If dipping your toe into the murky depths of Nazisploitation, Nunsploitation or just anything that’s plain weird and creepy is too much for you to handle on your own – let Jenn be your guide. She’ll ensure your glass is always full too.

Frankenstenia: The Frankenstein Blog

A blog dedicated to all things Frankenstein. Pierre hosted a wonderful Boris Karloff blogathon late last year which got most of the horror blogosphere rushing to revisit old Universal favourites and explore a few lesser seen Karloff oddities. This site contains artwork, reviews, retrospectives, old film stills and a wealth of other material relating to Shelley’s misunderstood monster…

Paracinema… The Blog

Paracinema… The Blog will always have a special place in my heart. Not only do they produce Paracinema, a quarterly film magazine focusing mainly on cult film, horror, B Movies, indie, exploitation, underground, world cinema and sci-fi – but their blog never fails to introduce me to random and obscure gems of fringe cinema. Each writer, including Matt of Chuck Norris Ate My Baby notoriety, has their own distinct voice, style and wit, and they never fail to provoke excitement and curiosity for whatever their topic of discussion is.

The Death Rattle

Aaron may or may not still be blogging at The Death Rattle, but when he is, he indulges readers in the most bizarre and obscure films imaginable and shares humorous reviews shot through with a scathing wit that is as refreshing and striking a sight as blood on snow…


Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Street Trash

1987
Dir. Michael J. Muro

A dodgy liquor store owner flogs bottles of out of date ‘Viper’ at discount rate to the local hobos, unaware of its true properties: it causes its consumers to melt. Very graphically. Fred and his brother Kevin, two young street urchins, find themselves up against the effects of the toxic brew, as well as having to contend with the junkyard overlord Bronson, an unhinged ‘Nam vet…

When a film opens with a slapstick chase scene in which a tramp steals liquor and money from various people only for them all to give chase, full frontal nudity, fart gags, a paraplegic falling out of his wheelchair and some completely random and absurd violence in which a man sitting in his car is hauled out of it by a hulking shell-shocked miscreant and hurled through his own windshield, much to the shock and dismay of his female passenger – you just know you’re in for a morally vacuous and utterly depraved splurge of a treat. Ladies and gentlemens may I present to you the gloriously perverted and truly outrageous schlock-fest Wes Craven once said made John Waters look like Mary Poppins: Street Trash! Leave your decency and moral outrage at the door, thanks.

Street Trash is the kind of film that contains a few moments (in fact it could be said the film is purely made up of these moments!) that may very well make you question what has become of your life, as you sit on your couch on a Friday afternoon watching a guy dissolve into a toilet in splashes of lurid viscera after he chugs some out-of-date gut rot. Or indeed the scene in which an unfortunate tramp has his penis lobbed off and tossed around the junkyard by his fellow vagrants as he desperately tries to retrieve it. Such moments come thick and fast in Street Trash. And yet the film still possesses a certain sick charm. The bad taste is so over the top and deliberately offensive, one can’t help but smile – even if you are a little appalled. It’s all part of the morbid fun to be had whilst indulging in a film such as this.


Director Muro somehow manages to constantly surprise though, with striking and effectively gaudy visuals and his and Roy Frumkes’ witty script consistently upping the perverse humour and absurd situations to gob-dropping heights. Basically, just when you think it can’t get any trashier, irreverent, grimier, sleazier or more disturbing: it does. While obviously shot on a shoestring budget, Muro also proves evidently capable of creating a memorable look and he even finds time to perform some impressive Evil Dead-like camera gymnastics, particularly in the scene in which the tramp dissolves into the toilet (!) and a steadicam rushes through a derelict wasteland, through rubble, around ruins and over debris to screech to a halt on the toilet in which the unfortunate hobo has just melted, before cautiously advancing towards it to have a closer inspection and reveal the psychedelically coloured splurge that lurks within it. Twisted doesn’t even begin to describe it. Truly outrageous. The production design is also worth mentioning – Robert Marcucci creates a lurid world that falls somewhere between Abel Ferrara’s squalid urban visions of Eighties New York and the post-apocalyptic dystopian world of Mad Max. At times the film also looks like a day-glo paint bomb has exploded in the special effects department of Troma.


The story just meanders along like a drunken bum shuffling down the street towards you – while you can see what’s coming, there is still the potential for anything to happen. The story exists to hold together a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse scenes of gory mayhem. Events occur that feel like they were just chucked into the mix to prolong the running time, and though Street Trash is not a film one could ever describe as boring, there are a number of moments that test one's patience. Only a little though. And other moments that are just completely wayward and bizarre such as the scene that presents what can only be described as ‘opportunistic necrophilia.’ I kid thee not.

The surprisingly witty script contains a dark and weird Vietnam War subtext. A number of references are made to the war before we are plunged into a bizarre, and really quite stunning looking (no, seriously!) flashback of Bronson, as he surveys his dying and bloodied comrades. A creepy scene in the junkyard after dark unfolds as the camera skulks amidst the filth and squalor and peers at the human forms lying amongst it, ranting about atrocities they’ve seen in the Vietnam war. For a brief moment a real sense of sympathy and worrying pathos is evoked before we move back into trashiness and tit shots. Another scene that feels a little out of place, simply because it is genuinely upsetting is the scene in which the ‘Drunken Wench’ is dragged kicking and screaming out of Fred’s shack by the junkyard vagrants. Her ravaged body shows up in the next scene. Not funny.


Much of the script was apparently improvised and the energy between the actors is infectious. Some of the actors were apparently from stage backgrounds and it comes across in a few performances, particularly Nicole Potter as Bronson’s wench Winette, as she gurns and slurs her way through events. She is at once ridiculous, tragic and offensive. Bill Chepil is also quite memorable as Bill the Cop, a hulking brute with the law on his side.

Energetic, grimly exuberant and no-nonsense trash – Street Trash revels in its own squalid perversity and fans of early Raimi, Romero and Craven might just find that they get a kick out of this surprisingly well put together and technically impressive grime-fest. Gory, graphic, exploitative sleaze, low budget, anti-establishment and morbidly funny – this won’t be to everyone’s taste – but those who have an inkling of what they’re letting themselves in for - and are ok with that – will be in for a sick treat.

A special two-disc edition of STREET TRASH (cert. 18) will be released on DVD (£15.99) by Arrow Video on 11th January 2010. Special Features include: "The Meltdown Memoirs" feature and a UK exclusive interview with Jane Arakawa (Wendy).

Click here for more info.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Interview with The Hills Run Red director Dave Parker

When The Hills Run Red hit DVD shelves last year it really created quite a furore amongst horror fans. The film focuses on a group of young film students who venture into the woods in search of a long lost horror film. The film, titled ‘The Hills Run Red’, was considered by the very few that had seen it to be the scariest movie ever made and shortly afterwards its director Wilson Wyler Concannon vanished, taking the only reel of the film with him. The students eventually discover however, that the deranged killer from the movie is real and still very much alive – and filming never finished as he is still killing for the sake of his art. And they are his new co-stars.

The Hills Run Red combines post-Scream reflexivity with ‘old school’ horror violence, tension and atmosphere, shot through a post-‘torture-porn’ aesthetic to create an interesting homage to old slasher flicks that had horror fans positively salivating. While it may have divided audiences, it still got genre fans talking and provoked plenty of discussion and lively debate. Director Dave Parker was kind enough to chat with Behind the Couch recently about The Hills Run Red, early 80s slasher movies, Hollywood hypocrisy and the unbeatable thrill one gets when watching a really great horror film.


How did the idea for The Hills Run Red come about?

The idea came from John Carcietta of Fever Dreams LLC, a production company out of New York. He worked with the original screenwriter Jon Dombrow turning the idea into a full screenplay – that’s what I read when they first contacted me.

How did you become involved with the project and were you involved in the writing process?

Dave Parker and 'friend.'
In late 2006, Carl Morano and John Carcietta came to Los Angeles to meet with directors and producers out here. Several mutual friends suggested that they meet with me and my producer at the time, Robert Meyer Burnett. At the time Rob and I were working together on DVD Special Feature documentaries together and were both looking to get back into making movies and when this opportunity came up we got really excited.

I responded to The Hills Run Red script, because it felt a little like a throwback slasher movie of the ‘80’s, which I have a very fond place for in my heart. I really wanted a chance to do a masked killer movie also. The reality in the film business, if you are not a big director, is that it can and in my case did take years to get another movie off the ground – so I wanted it to be the best that I thought it could be and also didn’t want to just rehash the same old thing or things I had done before. The original script had a lot of obvious and in your face film references that I wasn’t thrilled with, so part of the process to get the movie was to give Fever Dreams notes on how I would like to change the script. I also had artwork done – this business is a visual one and I wanted the ideas I was presenting to seem clear to them. I worked with my conceptual artist Michael Broom, who created several very effective pieces of art depicting certain ideas/scenes/concepts that I wanted to incorporate into the script. I also had him do some early designs for the masked killer, Babyface, giving them an idea of where I was coming from.

The next step was getting David J. Schow (The Crow) to come in and do us the huge favour of rewriting the script – basically keeping the core ideas of the Dombrow script, but changing almost everything else. Rob and I were both very involved in the rewrite process with Dave, which was a really great experience. It was a real pleasure to be able to hang with Schow at like 4am working on it and trying to not only come up with the most twisted shit we could, but also to get to work so closely with a writer that I have admired for a very long time.


The film has quite a striking look – what were your reasons for shooting it this way?

Visually my approach was to give it a feel of an 80’s movie, but execute it with a modern sensibility. It’s lit with a glossier sheen than many of today’s horror movies and not as desaturated. The colour red was an important aspect to the movie and I wanted it to be very vibrant and to stand out. I talked a lot with my director of photography Ilan Rosenberg about horror movies of the past and trying to bring that feel to a modern day film. Also, I didn’t want to use a lot of hand held camera techniques in the movie, I was just tired of the whole shaky cam aspect that seems to be in modern horror. Unless it’s used properly I think it confuses the audience and can disconnect them. I wanted the audience to be able to follow what they were seeing in terms of the action. Plus, I think a more traditional filming approach helped create moments of tension.

Who or what are you inspired by and why? Any particular filmmakers you admire?

For this movie in particular I was inspired by the early 80’s slasher movies – to be more exact films like The Burning, Madman, Tourist Trap. These were films that were spawned by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, and perhaps because they were a little rougher around the edges, they had a more ‘pulp horror’ feel. There was also a subliminal infusion of Italian cinema, films of Argento and Fulci also seem to spill over into what I’ve done, especially the colour palates they used. As far as filmmakers go I’m inspired by so many. John Carpenter is tops for me, he blended style with great storytelling and characters that I’ve always been drawn to. Stuart Gordon is also a real favourite because he’s never afraid to push the boundaries of horror and not only question our morals, but our stomachs! Don Coscarelli is someone else I love, and to me something like his Masters of Horror episode Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, really captures what I think is a fresh approach to a slasher story, and I’ve always admired his abilities to create a world for his characters that feels very unique. Bottom-line is, I think these filmmakers are great storytellers who know how to unnerve the audience and make the simplest ideas seem nightmarish and fresh - something I’m trying to do.



What themes and ideas intrigue you most as a filmmaker?

For The Hills Run Red the theme that we really focused on was obsession. How far would someone go to get what they want? I think it’s an interesting question to pose to the viewer and one that hopefully they will ask themselves. How far can you stretch that moral compass to get what you want? Maybe because I’m working in Hollywood where that line tends to be grey for a lot of people, is the reason I’m intrigued by it. This is a business of a lot of desperation, compromise and sadly backstabbing to get ahead. For me it’s the part that is hardest to deal with because I’m just not wired that way. I’ve certainly seen others cross that line and achieved some great success, but for me I believe that everyone deserves credit, and blame, and should be treated fairly.

How did you go about filming the film within the film in The Hills Run Red? It genuinely looks like a lurid old slasher flick from the early 80s.

Filming the movie within the movie was pretty fun really. Since I have a pretty extensive knowledge of the films of the past I knew that the material had to be lit and shot pretty simply. Many of these slasher films were made by people who were cashing in on past successes and just copying a style – through camera angles, music, lighting and story. That’s what we tried to do: make the audience feel like it was as authentic as possible. Sadly we didn’t get to shoot more of the original movie as I would have liked – we just didn’t have time, so we had to make those moments feel familiar and related to the audience that knows and appreciates those kinds of films very quickly. Everything down to the trailer narration was paying tribute to what had come before.

You’re obviously a fan of horror - what scares you? What do you think makes an effective horror film?

What scares me obviously has changed over the years. Early on almost everything scared me – scary music, the setting, kills – even if it was very basic it worked because I was a blank slate and a sponge for whatever they threw at me. Now, after watching so much, it takes more to really get to me, but the basic things that scare everyone still affect me. Death, the dark, the unknown, dismemberment, disease, loss of control – the difference now as opposed to my early years is that I really need to be drawn into the story and characters for it to really affect me. Perfect example that’s pretty recent is The Descent – great characters that you felt for and knew and a lot of terrifying moments, great atmosphere and setting, cool monsters – for me a perfect blend.

The other thing is there is the debate if a true horror movie has to be just scary and not fun. Most of the horror films we hold up as true classics have very few if any, light moments – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead. But then there is a whole crop of movies like Creepshow, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, Fright Night that are examples of films filled, not just with great scares, but great humour – they are thrill rides. I miss that – it’s a very difficult combination, just that right blend of humour and horror that compliment each other – An American Werewolf in London being the perfect example. But if you get that right then I think you have a pretty unique movie. I’m not saying all horror movies should just be fun, but I don’t think that every horror movie has to take everything so seriously.

Given some of the more ‘explicit’ scenes depicted in The Hills Run Red (the drug use and rape scenes) - Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story?

I really went into doing this movie and script knowing that there was some pretty dark stuff in it. I made the choice early on that you couldn’t dip your toe into the water, so to speak, but had to dive right in. That’s what I did. Some of the scenes were not pleasant to shoot but I did my best present them in a stylistic way that would magnify what was disturbing without always being in your face about it. I know that we managed to do that in several scenes and I’m proud of those. They might not be the most wholesome scenes, but to me, especially with this movie and having Babyface present in it, in my mind, distanced the movie from pure reality. Our goal was to make an effective film, not an ugly one. This movie is not high art, and I would never make the argument that it is. It’s a movie. 80 minutes of good old pulp horror. The fact that there are interesting things to say about what horror is – obsession etc - and our fascination with these things in the movie, is gravy and very much thanks to David Schow.

Babyface in the woods...
 The killer in the film has a genuinely iconic ‘slasher villain’ look about him. How did you go about creating the look of Babyface?

Babyface started, as far a concept, on the page. The name alone – which is kind of silly – does bring up certain images in my mind. The thing that came to me initially was a doll face. Those old porcelain dolls always had very creepy faces to me and I like the whole paleness to them. Visually I thought that could work really well. So that’s what Michael Broom, my conceptual designer, and I started with. Then we started really thinking about the character – why he wears a mask and the things that go with that. For that I talked with David Schow a lot, and to me, how to make this character different from other slashers. I wanted this mask to actually be his face. This idea feed into the script. Why is it his face? What led this character to cut off his own face and sew this mask on? If he had been killing people for years, what would that mask look like if the victims fought back? It may sound funny to think about all these aspects for the look of the killer, but to me it was a very important part of how the look came about. It also led us to create some pretty cool scenes, like the opening scene with the child Babyface cutting off his own face.

Babyface is really a result of working with Michael Broom, David Schow and Jim Kagel, who sculpted the mask and what was underneath. When you combine that look with what David Schow brought to the character in the script and our actor Raicho Vasilev did in playing him, you get something different hopefully. I’m really happy with the result, I think we created a character that audiences could buy living in the same universe as Jason or Michael Myers. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Babyface iconic – that’s something only time and the fans can create.

 
Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

I think at this level of filmmaking which is still, in the studios’ eyes, very low budget is always difficult. I think people have misconceptions of what making a movie is really about. If they just watch Entertainment Tonight and see an on-set story, it looks like its one big party! The reality is different, not that it’s bad or not fun, but there is a lot of work. By the time you wake up each day to the time that you are back in bed is usually 20 hours. You’re always wishing for more time. The majority of our movie takes place outside at night – not something you can fake easily or without a lot more money. We shot in the summer and we only had at most 8 hours of darkness. The usual shooting day – actual shooting hours – is 12 hours. So we had to compress everything we planned. Sometimes you are waiting around for special effects to be ready – and if they don’t work the first time, then you have to wait for them to reset it. There are a million challenges everyday, but if you love what you do – and getting to make a movie is a real privilege – then it’s all worth it.

Any subsequent rewards for shooting a low budget horror film?

The best advice I can give an aspiring filmmaker is just to ‘do’. The more experience you have, the more you get to work on your skills, the more you get to experiment, the better you will be. Shooting on a low budget puts you in the hot seat all the time. You have to be more creative in shooting, because you don’t have the time or the money


It has been creating quite a stir in the horror community. How do you feel about the reaction of audiences to the film?

I’m surprised by the reaction, I wasn’t sure it was going to be as well liked as it seems to be. That’s not to say I’m not proud of the movie – I am, but I have no way to judge what someone watching it at home is going to think. I have to go off of what I like, what I would want to see, and my knowledge of the genre. I always want to make movies that are seen by as many people as possible, but you never really know if it’s going to connect with them or not. You just have to go with your gut.

One of your earlier films, The Dead Hate the Living, is also concerned with a group of horror film buffs attempting to make the ultimate horror film. Why does the idea of horror fans and why they love horror so much appeal to you?

With The Dead Hate the Living, it was my first movie, I was the writer – so I wrote what I knew – which was horror fans and fandom. With The Hills Run Red, that idea was in the script before I ever read it. It was an aspect that Fever Dreams wanted to keep in the rewrite and Dark Castle responded to it as well. I was concerned about the connection, in that sense, between the two films, but it’s not an aspect I had control over. That being said – horror fans heading to the middle of nowhere to find a lost film seems at least a better motivation than a group of kids go out to the woods to drink, fuck and die.

How would you describe your own particular brand of horror? What makes The Hills Run Red stand out from other horror movies today?

I haven’t made enough horror movies to have a brand. John Carpenter is a brand, George Romero is a brand. Right now I’m just trying to learn. I like all kinds of things in horror. Personally I tend to gravitate to the more pulpy kinds of horror – Richard Laymon books, Creepshow - things that are larger than life, but with each project something different comes so out. The Hills Run Red is post post Scream, its post ‘torture porn’, other people have called it Meta-Horror though I’m not sure what that even means. I think what makes The Hills Run Red stand out is that there’s more layers to it when you look at it than just blood and guts. It’s not a cut and dried thing where I can go – it’s different because our gore is the best ever!


How did you go about assembling the cast and crew for the film?

Since our schedule was the way it was I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Erik Olsen, our producer, is very good at finding the right talent for the project and luckily we managed to get a very good cast of on the rise talent including Tad Hilgenbrinck (American Pie: Band Camp), Sophie Monk (Sex and Death 101), Alex Wyndham (Freakdog) and newcomer Janet Montgomery (Wrong Turn 3). The strangest part of it all was that they were all cast very last minute. I didn’t get to meet any of them until 2 days before we started shooting the film, so there was, I think, anxiety on both sides because none of us knew what we were getting into or had even met before then!

William Sadler was always my first choice. I didn’t want the usual “horror character actor” to play the role and I’ve always loved his work. He was my first choice and was absolutely thrilled that we got him. I think he’s going to surprise people when they see him. He has such presence and, even with his limited screen time, creates a very memorable and untypical character. Our DP, Ilan Rosenberg, had worked with Dark Castle before and he proved to be invaluable. He’s very Zen about everything and it all moves very quickly. He’s great with ideas and how to combine shots when we were running out of time. The rest of the crew was assembled in Bulgaria and people who had worked on Return to House on Haunted Hill with Dark Castle. They were fantastic to work with and as dedicated as any I’ve ever seen. It really is a family there, they care a lot.



What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?

I’m working on several scripts and projects now that are horror in one-way or another. What’s exciting is that the projects I am working on are very different from each other. One’s with author John Skipp while another one is based on a comic book and David Schow and I are working on ideas. It’s an exciting time and I can’t wait to get back on set.