Friday, 30 April 2010

Splash of Lugosi?

As Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi was no stranger to guzzling the red stuff. The actor himself however was also something of a connoisseur when it came to the red stuff. No, the other red stuff. Although Count Dracula never “drank” wine, Bela Lugosi, the man, had impeccable taste in wines. With the creation of the Bela Lugosi brand wines, the Lugosi family pays tribute to their patriarch, a man of distinction, while acknowledging the icon that will forever be - Dracula.

Continuing the family’s enthusiasm for wine inspired by Bela Lugosi, Lugosi Wines will seek varietals sourced from superior wine-growing regions. Winemakers will create exceptional wines from distinct appellations to assemble a portfolio of the Bela Lugosi brand wines that will celebrate the best varietals from around the world. With each new release added to Lugosi Wines’ offerings, the Bela Lugosi collection will exemplify the distinct qualities of Bela Lugosi, the man, in a unique compilation of outstanding wines.

Lugosi Wines is proud to announce the release of the first vintage of the signature series wines. The Domingo Hermanos Winery in Argentina produced this vintage exclusively for Lugosi Wines. The vineyards are located in Salta, Argentina, and at 7200 feet altitude, are one of the highest in the world. The label artwork is by Argentinean citizen, Bruno Fernandez. Only 1200 hand numbered bottles were produced.

Go here to order a bottle, or, like me, a casket of the stuff. Hic.

While we're on the subject of all things Lugosi - head over to Carfax Abbey to read Matthew Coniam's wonderfully scrupulous post on Lugosi's Monogram movies... Great stuff - goes down well with a nice Lugosi Malbec!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Day of the Dead

1985
Dir. George Romero

In the wake of the zombie apocalypse, only small pockets of human resistance survive. A small group of scientists and soldiers are holed up in an underground missile silo. As the scientists experiment on forcibly captured zombie specimens to try and find a way to control them, the soldiers become increasingly impatient with the lack of results and are eager to wage an all-out war on the undead. Soon, the tension between the two human camps erupts into a violent situation that is only overshadowed by the vicious zombie slaughter that surrounds them.

When George Romero wrote the original treatment for Day of the Dead, he intended it to be on a much grander scale, a ‘Raiders of the Living Dead’, if you will. Or as Romero once described it – ‘the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies’. Allegedly he and Dario Argento had planned to team up again to helm the project, however the funding from European investors fell through and Argento regrettably had to pull out of the project, leaving George with a finished script and an epic vision, but no money to realise either. Further budget disputes and an artistic necessity on Romero’s part to release the film unrated, ensured the budget of the film was eventually cut again. This forced Romero to strip back his story to its most basic elements, rewriting the script and reining everything in. The result is surely one of the bleakest, goriest, most provocative, chilling and sorely undervalued horror films of the Eighties.

The bulk of the film explores the increasingly strained relationship between the scientists and the soldiers. The small team of scientists comprises of Sarah and Ted (Lori Cardille and John Amplas) who work under Logan (Richard Liberty), or ‘Dr Frankenstein’ as he has been dubbed by the disgruntled soldiers, due to the gruesome experiments he carries out. Headed by the ever-strung out and deranged Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the soldiers are a crude motley crew who shoot first and ask questions later. They delight in the rounding up and barbaric treatment of the dead. Also making up the numbers are helicopter pilots John and McDermott (Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy). They, along with Sarah make up the human heart amidst the debris of the dark story, and the plethora of unpleasant characters that populate it. The various altercations and face-offs between scientists and soldiers grow more intense and deadly as the story unfolds. The actions of the soldiers mark them as the real monsters of the piece, not the zombies.

The inspired setting within a seemingly endless series of underground caverns, as well as being budget-friendly also adds an unbearable tension to proceedings, and as the suspense mounts, the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and hopelessness is almost unbearable. The opening shot of Sarah slumped in a heap of despair in a small concrete room immediately sets the mood of the film. A brief foray into the outside world under the opening credits reveals empty city-scapes, deserted boulevards and eerily silent city centres, populated by tumble-weeds, wildlife and the living, shuffling, perpetually hungry dead. As soon as we descend into the concrete Hades, we remain there for the rest of the film amidst sickly florescent lighting and a never-ending vista of concrete, stone and steel. A downbeat and murkily pulsating soundtrack courtesy of John Harrison is as atmospheric as it is typical Eighties fare, and constantly drives the narrative forward while never intruding too much.

The various experiments and autopsies depicted in the film are amongst the most gruesome of Romero’s career and the SFX were provided by Greg Nicotero (who also stars as Private Johnson). As the already bloodied and soiled events race towards their dark conclusion – and a horde of flesh hungry zombies penetrate the underground silo – Romero, Nicotero and co. unleash their bloodiest, wettest fantasies as limbs are pulled off, eyes hauled out of sockets, faces ripped apart, legs torn from torsos and bodies literally pulled apart and lovingly slopped across the screen. The death of Rhodes in particular is fairly protracted and jaw-droppingly visceral.

Typical of Romero’s work, a compelling and thoughtful subtext brimming with ideas and opinions lurks not too far beneath the surface of Day of the Dead. Romero mediates on the likes of fascism, scientific morality, spirituality and human compassion. The director once remarked that this film was a "tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse". Romero had also previously explored the notion of the dead as ‘us’ in Dawn of the Dead, and he continues this concept in greater depth with the introduction of Bub (Howard Sherman), a seemingly docile ‘every-zombie’ who seems to possess memories of his past existence. Before long the scientists, and indeed the audience, are soon empathising with Bub as the lines between good and evil, are increasingly blurred and events spill over into a veritable quagmire of moral dilemmas and debates.

Day of the Dead remains as affecting today as it was twenty-five years ago and one of Romero’s most underappreciated and thought provoking treatises on death and the human condition.

To celebrate the film’s 25th Anniversary, those lovely folks over at Arrow Video have repackaged the film and released it on Blu-ray with a slew of special features including four sleeve art options; double-sided fold-out poster; ‘For Every Dawn There Is A Day’ collector’s booklet; ‘Day Of The Dead: Desertion’ – an all new exclusive 24-page collector’s comic featuring new Bub storyline; 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and 1.0 Mono audio options.

Disc One (Blu-ray)
Theatrical feature; audio commentary with special effects team of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, Everett Burrell and Mike Deak; Joe Of The Dead – Acting In A Romero Classic; Travelogue Of The Dead.

Disc Two (DVD)
The Many Days Of The Dead; Behind the Zombies footage; Romero Zombography; Photo Album of the Dead; Souvenirs of the Dead; Night Of The Living Dead trailer; Dawn Of The Dead trailer; TV Ads of the Dead; The Audio Recollections of Richard Liberty; Wampum Mine promo.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Phobia

2009

Thai-horror anthology featuring the work of four different directors and comprising of four self-contained but tenuously connected tales of terror. In the grand tradition of Tales From The Crypt, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Creepshow, Phobia is an eclectic and at times compelling fright flick for those who like short, sharp and shocking horror compendia.

Director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s dialogue-free instalment Happiness features a young woman, housebound due to injuries received in a taxi accident, whose only connection to the outside world is via her mobile phone. One evening she begins receiving friendly text messages from a mysterious boy. Things take a turn for the sinister however when it becomes apparent that the texts are being sent from beyond the grave… Thongkongtoon is perhaps better known for his gentle comedies, but with Happiness he really proves himself to be capable of spinning a good old fashioned slow-burning horror yarn, with an emphasis on chills rather than out and out shocks. Combining elements of Rear Window, One Missed Call and The Monkey’s Paw, Happiness paints a dislocated picture of modern living - when even residing in a bustling city is no guarantee you’ll never be lonely. People communicate through machines and everything is impersonal – we all exist in our own little spaces with the internet as our window on the world. All this technology at our finger tips also allows others into our lives. Thongkongtoon milks this creepy premise for all its worth and combines it with old Thai folklore about the dead to create a claustrophobic, unnerving and surprisingly poignant tale of lonely souls desperate to connect with someone.

Tit For Tat features a group of dope-smoking school bullies who face bloody, Final Destination style retribution when their latest victim seeks revenge through black magic and a terrifying curse from which there is no escape. Paween Purikitpanya’s hyper-kinetic direction and epilepsy-inducing editing techniques combine with elaborate death scenes and generous helpings of gore to form the anthology’s low point – well, every anthology has to have a low point. The stylistic overkill, frantic pacing and over-dependency on poor CGI annihilate tension and prove distancing in this otherwise entertaining detour through high school retribution. A few striking visuals, such as the trail of blood through the crowded school corridors and the shocking though predictable final image, prove effective; otherwise this is the least engaging segment of the film.

In the Middle focuses on the dour plight of four youths on an eventful camping trip. When one goes missing after their dinghy capsizes, proceedings become worse when he eventually shows up again at their camp. This self-referential horror-comedy makes up for its lack of scares with an irascible wit that unfortunately also dilutes any tension that could have been generated from such a spooky situation. It seems director Banjong Pisanthanakun was heavily influenced by Kevin Williamson, and the barrage of nods, winks and smugly self-referential dialogue begins to wear thin after a while. This sort of thing was ‘hip’ and fresh in the Nineties, and it seems only Pisanthanakun still thinks it’s relevant. The Sixth Sense, The Others and Wongpoon’s Shutter are all mentioned and at one stage a character even poses the question ‘Why are ghosts always females with white faces and long, straight dark hair?’ Hilarious. Thai folklore and superstitions about sleeping in the middle of the bed between two people are utilised to conjure some suspense, but events are so clearly signposted and reliant on cliché that it soon abates.

With Parkpoom Wongpoom’s The Last Flight, the best has most definitely been saved for last. Upping the shock factor to new heights, this dark tale of guilt, madness, treachery and revenge follows Pim, the sole stewardess on a flight taking home the body of a deceased princess. Pim is seemingly haunted, mid-air, by the princess whose marriage she wrecked and who she accidentally killed. Taut, claustrophobic and full of unexpected scares, The Last Flight is a textbook example of effective horror. Recalling the likes of Bava’s The Drop of Water and Wise’s The Body Snatcher, this segment delves headlong into a murky tale of the vengeful dead returning to torment the one who wronged them. Eliciting shuddering chills and rippling tension as well as outright shocks, Wongpoom has created a nasty little tale of terror to rival his own Shutter and Alone.

Phobia, like most anthologies is at times utterly compelling, and at other times a rather uneven affair. Combining different tones and styles as distinct and individualistic as the one’s exhibited by these directors is not as jarring as it could have been, though it still results in the abrupt shifts in mood and atmosphere you'd expect. Having said that however, the film is never anything less than entertaining and contains more than its fair share of spine-tingling moments.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Salvage

2009
Dir. Lawrence Gough

A quiet cul-de-sac is suddenly plunged into a world of violence, terror and paranoia when a group of heavily armed military personnel storms the area, sealing off the close and ordering the residents at gunpoint to retreat inside their homes. This coincides with the discovery of a mysterious container washed ashore nearby. Unsure if this is the first sign of a terrorist attack, or something worse, one local single mother, Beth (Neve Mcintosh), mounts increasingly desperate attempts to save her estranged daughter, Jodie (Linzey Cocker), who is visiting her for the holiday but is now stranded across the street in a neighbour’s house. With growing dread, the trapped residents soon discover that the imminent threat is far more monstrous than any of them could possibly imagine.
Whatever was in the container has reached the housing estate, and it is seriously depleting the numbers of the military unit and residents alike…

Salvage is a taut, tightly constructed and relentless thriller. The central premise bursts with potential drama and intrigue and shares a grand tradition with the likes of ‘siege’ movies by John Carpenter and George Romero. The formula that places a small group of people in a limited location, threatened by forces unknown from outside has proved a successful one, time and time again. The suburban setting easily recalls the likes of Right at your Door, and like that film, most of the ensuing action takes place in limited locations, namely a couple of the houses nestled in the quiet, leafy street (actually the set of old British soap opera Brookside). Elements of 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead and even The Host are thrown into the mix with mainly successful results.

After we are briefly introduced to the various characters such as sulky teen Jodie, her estranged, career driven mother Beth, Beth’s one night stand Kieran (Shaun Dooley), and various other neighbours, and all of their interactions and issues have been established, the stage is set. The suddenness and brutality of events after this is really quite breathtaking and once the SWAT teams descend on the quiet cul-du-sac, tension really begins to mount. Gough deftly builds and sustains intrigue and suspense, showing us nothing, but suggesting much. We are privy only to what Beth and Kieran can see from the net-curtained windows of her house, which adds an element of claustrophobia to proceedings. Flashes of gunfire and bloodied neighbours dying in the street are glimpsed and the panic and pandemonium that breaks out is effectively realised; heightened by the blunt manner in which the military deal with the situation ordering everyone back inside their homes with force - adds to the worrying nausea generated.

Is it a contagious viral outbreak? A terrorist attack? Chemical warfare? The dead returning to life? Gough automatically generates a myriad of questions and concerns. We are kept in the dark about the cause of the quarantine as much as the characters and the sense of cosy domesticity being invaded by something terrible really proves effective. Adding to the panic is a brief news report glimpsed on TV before a power cut about the mysterious container washed up on a nearby shore. Just what was inside? When it is revealed what was inside, the film performs an unprecedented twist that will have your jaw on the floor. Gough even finds time to work a little relevant social commentary into the mix when the increasingly paranoid Kieran suspects that Beth’s neighbours are members of the Taliban, exclaiming ‘They're all suicide bombers, them!’ Tension is generated further when Beth and Kieran sneak into their neighbours house via the adjoining attic only to discover a bloodbath…

Unfortunately, the central plot of Beth attempting to reach her stranded daughter feels a little contrived and may have made much more of an impact had the two actually had more of a prior bond. As the determined mother Beth though, Neve McIntosh delivers a blistering performance, her kick-ass maternal instinct recalling the likes of Ripley in Aliens. She wouldn’t have been out of place on that pot-holing expedition in The Descent either. Many of the characters aren’t really given enough of a chance to develop before they are nastily despatched, and with such a premise and basic cast as the one featured, so much more drama and tension could have been sustained had there been any sort of connection, other than a basic human one, between audience and characters. Events do plunge into preposterousness on occasion, and some tension is dispelled by too much time spent following characters who blindly run/wander/hide in the street. Director Gough’s direction is tight and efficient and as the story unfolds, the pace builds ever quicker to unnerving speed before the breaks are slammed on ensuring fatal impact with a rather dark and upsetting conclusion.

While Salvage is certainly nothing new, and not without its flaws, it still proves to be a highly effective and tightly paced little thriller, that with more attention to detail and structure, could have been a really great little thriller.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The House of the Devil

2009
Dir. Ti West

In order to obtain the money she needs for a down payment on a new apartment, cash-strapped college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) takes on a babysitting job in a remote mansion. However when Samantha is taken to the house by her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), she is informed by the resident odd couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), that they do not have any children, and it will be Mr Ulman’s elderly mother she’ll be looking after while they are out to view a full lunar eclipse. It isn't long before Samantha realizes that something isn’t right in the house and as the lunar eclipse darkens the night sky, Samantha realises to her horror that the Ulman’s have diabolical plans for her… Can she survive the night? Will she escape with her soul intact?

With titles such as The Roost and Trigger Man, director Ti West has been making a name for himself on the horror circuit as a force to be reckoned with. Deftly utilising minuscule budgets and exhibiting a real penchant for creating creepy atmospheres and effectively wrought suspense, while defying expectations and avoiding the pitfalls of so many other horror directors, West is obviously a deep admirer of horror cinema who knows how to induce chills in his audience. With The House of the Devil, the director has returned to the old school roots that many great horror movies are entrenched in and that he obviously adores.

Combining elements of the haunted house movie with those of satanic cult and exploitation movies, West has fashioned a taut and anxiety-ridden film that starts slowly and builds to a nauseating and suspenseful denouement. In the grand tradition of Bava, Polanski, Hitchcock, Lewton and Hammer Horror, The House of the Devil successfully depicts insidiously creepy events that encroach on everyday situations and people, altering their lives and darkening their minds forever.

Set in the Eighties and shot on 16mm film, this film is simply steeped in a retro sheen that effortlessly evokes a grainy and earnest nostalgia. Indeed, we open with the statement that ‘During the 1980s, over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic Cults’, which automatically sets the tone for the unbearably dark events to come. West not only manages to evoke old ’80s horror movies throughout, but because he also plays it straight, the result is a movie that is as effective as it is a loving homage to a bygone era of straight-to-video horror. Though it is a new film, The House of the Devil still feels like some old unearthed cult classic.

The cinematography, courtesy of Eliot Rockett also reflects the time in which the lurid story unfolds, deploying various techniques used by filmmakers of the time, such as zoom shots and the freeze frames of the opening credits. From the costumes to the hairstyles, to the music, title sequences and the use of props such as a Sony Walkman, we are immediately transported back to a bygone era that produced some of the most memorable horror movies of all time. Unlike other recent films that have delved into bygone years for inspiration in an attempt to create something fresh and interesting however, this film does not use satire or irony, but plays it straight in order to be as true as possible to the style of that particular decade's horror films. Everything feels authentic, and events never descend into Kevin Williamson-style self-conscious nudge-winkery.

From the moment Samantha arrives at the house we just know something is off. Noonan’s odd behaviour and quiet menace ensure proceedings begin their slow build into tightly coiled tension almost immediately. The bulk of the film features Samantha wandering around the house and exploring the various dark rooms as the increasingly overwhelming feeling of foreboding unease becomes unbearable. She watches a bit of telly. Orders pizza. And dances through a wonderful full-on Eighties-inspired montage. The comfortable domestic setting takes on an eerie atmosphere as soon as she is left alone. As the audience, we are made aware of the contents of the room Samantha is instructed never to enter. It is a simple shot, but the mood and tension it immediately creates ripples through the rest of the film and really works at increasing the knots in one’s stomach. The quiet menace and eerie silence of the mid-section of the film gradually bleeds into abrupt violence and full on brutality, but thanks to West's assured, unfussy direction, it never feels forced.

West adopts the slow-burn approach and cranks the tension up throughout the first two acts, before letting rip with the frenzied and bloodied climax. The director is careful to ensure that we spend time with Samantha so an attachment is formed. Donahue exudes an innocent charm and the rapport between her and Gerwig in early scenes feels genuine. Donahue pretty much carries the entire film, and she never balks once while doing so. The chilling climax also exhibits a strange poignancy, which is in part due to Donahue’s performance.

The House of the Devil is a lean and taut exercise in building atmosphere, creating tension and eliciting stone-cold chills. West knows that the power of horror comes from the anticipation of the payoff, not necessarily the payoff itself. West’s approach to horror – revisiting the aesthetics and sensibilities of old-school slasher movies and satanic cult anxieties - proves a refreshing one and The House of the Devil unwinds as a startling, suspenseful and deeply effective little chiller.

Two Evil Eyes

Two Evil Eyes/Due Occhi Diobolici brings together two of the horror genre's greatest directors, George A. Romero (Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebrae, Sleepless), to remake two Edgar Allan Poe tales previously brought to the big screen by B-movie maestro Roger Corman in his 1962 film, Tales Of Terror.

Directed by Romero, The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar tells the story of a scheming, cheating wife (Adrienne Barbeau) who convinces her psychiatrist lover (Ramy Zada) to hypnotise her dying husband (Bingo O'Malley) in order to get him to sign his fortune over to her. When the husband dies while still under hypnosis, he finds himself caught in a limbo between the worlds of the living and the dead, and hungry for revenge.


In The Black Cat, directed by Argento, Harvey Keitel plays Roderick Usher, a feline-hating, Weegee-like forensic photographer who, naturally, specialises in shooting pictures of death and murder scenes. When his wife, Annabel (Madeleine Potter) brings home a stray cat, Usher wastes no time in disposing of the animal. Unfortunately, the cat refuses to stay dead, prompting Usher's terrifying, murderous descent into madness.

Starring genre movie favourites Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow), Tom Atkins (The Fog, Escape From New York, Creepshow, Halloween III:Season Of The Witch), Bingo O'Malley (Knightriders, Creepshow) and E.G. Marshall (Creepshow), alongside Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), Sally Kirkland (The Sting, The Player, JFK), Kim Hunter (Planet Of The Apes, The Seventh Victim), Martin Balsam (Psycho) and John Amos (Die Hard 2), the movie also marks the feature film debut of a young Julie Benz (Darla from TV's Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer).

Featuring plenty of bloody mayhem to please the gore-hounds, courtesy of special make-up effects wizards Tom Savini (Dawn Of The Dead, Creepshow, Day Of The Dead) and John Vulich (Day Of The Dead, TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer), and set to a suitably chilling score by Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed To Kill, The Howling), Two Evil Eyes is an essential addition to every horror aficionado's collection.



Argento's The Black Cat
 From Dario Argento (Kamera Books)...

The two segments of the film differ as much as the directors who helmed them; Romero is a solid story-teller who has a practical, no frills approach to his subject matter, and meticulously planned his shoot, whereas Argento prefers to revel in style and provocative trimmings, taking his usual experimental approach to its abstract conclusion.

Two Evil Eyes has a different look and style from many of Argento’s other films. The hyper-realistic photography by Beppe Maccari lacks the striking results of Argento’s previous work, and the film is the closest the director has come to creating something that could be described as ‘conventional.’ The camera work however is as ravishing as ever.

Argento films the escalating frenzy of delirious events with his usual style and precision, while Romero quietly ponders death, in a creepy but stagnant tale of revenge from beyond the grave. As a result, Two Evil Eyes is a very disjointed and uneven piece of work from two film makers who are as competent and individual in their approach to their craft as they are different from each other. An intriguing footnote in the careers of both men.


Two Evil Eyes (cert. 18) will be released on DVD (£15.99) by Arrow Video on 10th May 2010.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Interview with Dario Argento!!

Director Dario Argento really needs no introduction. For over forty years now the man has been responsible for creating some of the most important and controversial horror movies in cinema history and his work has influenced a slew of filmmakers. Famed for titles such as Deep Red, Suspiria and Opera, his films are inimitably stylish, atmospheric and dazzlingly shot, as well as being unbelievably violent and unnerving explorations of the darker side of human nature. Drawing from an encyclopaedic array of influences such as art, philosophy, literature, cinema and indeed Italy’s own rich and full-blooded culture, Argento continues to experiment and forge ahead in the creation of beguiling and devastatingly violent visions to this day.

I recently had the absolute pleasure of conducting a brief interview with Dario Argento himself – words I never thought I’d type! With the help of Kamera Books’ Francesca Brazzorotto, who kindly set up and facilitated the whole interview, translating my questions and Argento’s responses, I interviewed the director on Friday 9th April, 3pm. Timidly accepting the invite to join the three-way conference call between Belfast, Harpenden and Rome, I somehow found the ability to scrape myself off of the floor and speak just in time to splutter my admiration and undying love for Argento’s work and to thank him profusely for accepting my call. Argento was cool, calm and very gracious. The interview, which lasted approximately 30 minutes, is below and was kindly translated and transcribed by Francesca. Grazie mille, Francesca.

The Interview.

You have a body of work that deals explicitly with death – violent death. What is it about the dark subject matter in your work that draws you to it?

Argento: To be honest there isn’t a definite reason. I don’t really know exactly why. All I know is that I’m interested in aggressiveness, violence and the colour of blood. I’m fascinated by the aesthetic of it, and by the style it’s possible to represent and translate these passions, because in the end, horror is a passion.

Italian culture and art, and indeed its cinema, is rife with depictions of the demise of beautiful women. What do you think draws Italian artists, including yourself, to this mysterious link between sex and death?

Argento: I think that’s something very ancient, which comes from the Renaissance period. It’s an Italian tradition the act of narrating death and sex. The sex is seen almost as a psychoanalytical act, like in Freud, death is seen as the peak of the sexual act.

Gialli haven’t really been in vogue for some time – and were exclusive to Italian cinema. Do you think they will ever witness resurgence in popularity?

Argento: Well in the history of this kind of movie there are cycles. For example, for a certain period the classic horror was the trend, then the modern one. It’s bound to the creativity of the authors and directors, which at times bends on the horror side and other times on the giallo/thriller ones. Therefore I think the giallo genre could make a comeback.

Do you think that if the giallo made a comeback, it could be as popular as in the past?

Argento: There was a time when the giallo genre was very popular, but it’s never going to be as popular as then, although there have been few nice examples.


Out of all your contemporaries, such as Sergio Martino and Aldo Lado, you are the only one who continues to make giallo films today – why do you think this is? What is it about gialli that appeals to you so much as a filmmaker?

Argento: I’m deeply fascinated by the mystery, the mystery of the human soul, by the enigma within us. Therefore for me the giallo is the narration of something mysterious and inexplicable. Sometimes I like directing gialli, and other times I prefer the horror, it’s not like I only direct the former.

Do you think Italian cinema will ever experience as much success and prominence as it did in the 60s and 70s?

Argento: No, I really don’t think so. This is not the right time at all. The way people are watching movies has changed and new nationalities have come out, like oriental cinema and southern American cinema, which didn’t exist on the cinematographic scene before. Italian cinema has consequently lost a lot of his prestige.

Much of your work after Opera has divided critics and fans – many of them neglecting to see how your style and approach to film making has constantly been evolving. Of your own films, which do you feel were not as appreciated as they should have been?

Argento: In my opinion, for example, Opera hasn’t been appreciated enough. Then also Sleepless, which I thought was very interesting. They haven’t been understood by the public. Clearly my style is always evolving and therefore I’m always looking for new themes. People expect the author to make always the same movie, because it was successful and likeable. Instead I’m driven towards the change.

Would you ever film something that wasn’t giallo or horror? Like Five Days of Milan? What would convince you that doing this was a good idea?

Argento: Not at the moment, no, because I’ve been disappointed by the reaction of the public, even though I really liked that movie. I used to go for different genres, but then again I was young, I longed to tell different stories, but now I’ve learnt that the horror and giallo world is so wide that you’d need two lives to cover all those themes.

You have a few unfilmed scripts such as Dark Glasses/Occhiali Neri – will we ever see these as completed films?

Argento: I don’t think Dark Glasses will ever be made into a movie, since the script has ended up with a company that went bankrupt and it won’t be possible to recover it.

Can you tell me anything about your new script?

Argento: At present I’m looking at various projects, so I can’t be more precise. I have been offered a couple of movies to direct in the US, but I don’t know when they’ll be shot. At the moment I don’t know which one of these projects will be taken to the next step.


Argento directs Adrien Brody on the set of Giallo
You had a number of bad experiences when collaborating with American producers while making Inferno, Trauma and now with Giallo. Why did you decide to direct Giallo? What have you learned from making films with non Italian studios?

Argento: I felt very comfortable working in the US, because under the working point of view, people there are very professional; I was really comfortable when I shot Masters of Horror, because the technicians and actors were very professional. Unfortunately, though, I had problems with the post production, because the American producers have a way of doing things completely different from the Italian and European ones. Therefore I had various problems, especially, for example, with Giallo, which has been a disastrous experience.

For you, what are the key components of a good horror film or thriller?

Argento: They’re many. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to be honest, to narrate a story in an honest way, without worrying too much about what the public will like, or will be interested in. You need to think about something which will interest you first, so you need to look inside you, inside your own soul and conscience and try to tell these stories in a simple way.

What is your opinion on contemporary horror films? Any filmmakers you admire?

Argento: I think that at present the American horror genre is very commercial, often based on sadism, so I don’t really like it that much. Instead I’m very interested in Japanese and Korean cinema. I’m fascinated by its stories. Asian horror cinema, with its deep thought and psychology is very interesting.

Why do you think you have such a devoted following of fans around the world?

Argento: I think that this is due to my sincerity in telling stories. They come from a deep place inside of me, therefore they have a value which is not only national, but understandable anywhere. I’ve recently discovered this in my travels to Japan, Korea, USA, Brazil, Turkey, Greece... basically you can find the same correspondence anywhere in the world.

There are a number of recurring images throughout your work that seem to harbour significant meaning – for example the various shots of lizards in the likes of Inferno, Opera and Trauma. What is the significance of these? Is there any?!

Argento: I’m fascinated by animals, (in my movies) there are many: flies, dogs, cats... I’m really interested in the way animals live among us, in our lives.

How do you feel about Suspiria being remade? Are the rumours true that you plan to remake Deep Red?

Argento: I didn’t know about a remake of Deep Red. I knew about Suspiria because the American production at Fox told me they were going to do a remake around this time of the year. I’ve shot the original movie, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to remake it with the same passion I put into it.

Don’t you think that the remake of Suspiria could attract the new generation towards the old genres and your older movies?

Argento: I think that already a lot of generations know Suspiria, so I really don’t care about its remake.

In hindsight is there anything you’d change about your career path and where it’s led you?

Argento: Well, the past is past and you can’t change it. I’m what I am because of my past; therefore I wouldn’t change a thing.

What would be your ideal project and what does the future hold for you?


Argento: I think that I will focus on exploring the aspects of the human soul. This is going to be my duty: to look inside myself, explore my dark side and tell about it in my movies. Just like Edgar Allan Poe did in his books. My ideal project will be to continue on this path.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Latest review and chance to win a copy of 'Dario Argento' (Kamera Books)...

The latest review of Dario Argento is in courtesy of Horrorview. According to the website, Dario Argento is a "meticulously detailed but vividly written piece of work." The reviewer then goes on to say that the book will "prove invaluable to even seasoned fans... a compellingly written analysis of the films, pitched at a level that will enthuse rather than confuse the interested newer fan."

Fancy winning a copy of the book? Simple. Head over to Paracinema and pre-order a copy of issue 9 before April 18th. Your name will then be entered into a draw and you'll not only have a copy of the new issue of Paracinema (cool!), but also be in with the chance to win a copy of the book Horrorview described as "an enthusiastic and intelligently written appreciation of one of the most iconic names in modern horror."

Also, stay tuned for my exclusive interview with Il Maestro himself: Dario Argento!

Coming soon...

Monday, 5 April 2010

Interview with Finale Writer/Director John Michael Elfers

As evidenced in this month’s release of Amer, and films such as Darkness Surrounds Roberta, Eyes of Crystal and Lust for Vengeance – the legacy of the Italian giallo continues to bleed into the work of contemporary filmmakers. Another new title to wear the influence of Argento/Bava/Martino et al on its sleeve is director John Michael Elfers’ feature directorial debut Finale. A supernaturally tinged tale, Finale focuses on a family torn apart by the death of the oldest son - who seemingly committed suicide. The boy’s mother however, is convinced that her son was the victim of a satanic cult. As her investigation leads her deeper into a dark world of paranoia, death and despair, she not only risks tearing her fragile family apart, but also her own sanity, in an attempt to uncover the dark truth about her beloved son's fate...

I recently had the privilege to chat with John Michael Elfers about the tragic origins of his feature debut, shooting on a micro-budget and the influence of Italian horror directors. Read on…

Behind the Couch: Can you talk me through the genesis of the story of Finale? Where did the idea come from?

John Michael Elfers: I wanted to tell a personal story because making a film is an enormous investment. Unless you throw your heart, soul, mind and body into it, you will fail or make something mediocre.

My oldest brother was my childhood hero - he led a colourful life, practiced lucid dreaming, Shamanism, and led a gang that clashed with a group of self-declared Satanists. When I was an adolescent, he hanged himself. In the chaos that ensued, my mother poured through his writing and became convinced his death was actually the planned sacrifice of a Satanic cult. Grief-stricken and paranoid about our family’s safety, she made irrational and painful decisions that drove us apart. Ten years later – when I was the age my brother died – I decided to tell our story, but from my mother’s perspective. For what could be more terrifying than if she had been right – her family was in danger and no one believed her?

Was it difficult for you to write and immerse yourself in the production of Finale given the tragic events that lay in its origins?

There is a great divide between writing and directing. Writing a personal story, I took things that actually happened for granted. But when actors bring a character to life, they question their choices. For the performance to be honest, actors can’t pass judgement on their characters. So as a director, I had to find ways to justify people’s choices that in real life I had disagreed with.

Didn’t you feel at all vulnerable given what ideas the film is based on? How did you deal with this?

I believe that any real artist creates from a vulnerable place, and I’m tremendously objective oriented, so once I made up my mind that this was the film I wanted to make, everything became secondary to that. If you watch the behind-the-scenes, I get as haggard and unkempt as the character of the mother during the course of production. There were more important things to focus on while shooting. The hardest part was the emotional fallout following the shoot, when everything I’d been holding back caught up with me.


What was it about the horror genre that you felt equipped you best to tell this particular story?

I wanted a dream-like, surreal quality that captured my recollection of my brother and his world – where supernatural and black magic are possible. Horror gives you unparalleled freedom of expression - stylized camera angles, colour and movement. It also allows you to paint with the full palette of human experience, with touches of drama, humour, action, romance, attraction and repulsion.

Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story? Or perhaps a part of the story that you were quite hesitant to explore?

When I pitched the film to Kodak, they asked why I didn’t tell the literal story of my brother’s death. Honestly, I wouldn’t enjoy that film. My brother hanged himself in auto-erotic asphyxiation. It was such a meaningless way to die. The repercussions on our family were harrowing and took years to resolve. I wanted to tell a story with depth, but also thrills, action and suspense. In the film, he dies trying to save the town from a Satanic cult.


Finale has a very distinct and atmospheric look. How did you go about achieving this look and maintaining it throughout the film?

Thank you! Yes, we worked incredibly hard to achieve this. I wanted an authentic grind-house 70’s cinema look, so we opted to shoot Super 16mm film instead of digital. And instead of CGI, we achieved all our FX in-camera - what you see is exactly how it looked on set, giving a truly organic feel. Our FX rely on the quirks of film that digital can only imitate, like the flashes, blips and jittery motion of speed ramps or the haze of behind-the-lens filters. Finale could have been shot 40 years ago without changing a frame.

Did you consciously set out the direct something akin to the gialli of Italian 70s/80s cinema?

Yes, I am a huge admirer of Argento, Bava, and those Fulci death scenes, but not pastiche – not taking moments from my favourite films and tacking them together. Rather, after scouring the video shelves trying to find rare gems, I decided to make a film that felt like it was found in a vault from that era. Minus cell-phones, it’s a period piece. Finale is the movie I was subconsciously searching for.

Who or what are you inspired by and why? Any particular filmmaker’s you admire?

Before I set out to make Finale, I watched the first films of all my favourites. Along with the Italian directors, I was truly inspired by the independent spirit and imagination of Sam Raimi, Danny Boyle, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Clive Barker and Robert Rodriguez. They had the balls to make the movies they wanted despite having neither money nor industry connections. It can be frustrating hearing about filmmakers whose parents dropped a couple million dollars for them to make their first movie. The ones that are self-made I deeply admire.

Finale was obviously a labour of love for all involved. What challenges did you face whilst working on such a low budget film? Any scenes or shots that proved quite difficult to realise?

Too many to list – 4 years worth, to put a number on it – I lived out of my car while raising the budget, we ran through flames, blasted a prosthetic head with shotguns, lived on location and worked without heat or running water in the dead of winter. I stunt-doubled for actors, even dressed in drag with my legs shaved. It was an insane punk-rock adventure. You can get a taste for it in our behind-the-scenes.

How did you remain motivated throughout the shoot, and keep your cast and crew motivated too?

I’m like a 9 volt battery – you’d have to chain me to a spiked wall to keep me from making films. But I also had great people by my side. Ryan Harris – the DOP – was with me from the first draft to shooting our 3rd round of pickups 3 years later. The key was finding people with analogous goals that could directly benefit from being part of the project. Everyone on Finale was looking to launch their careers. From the connections we made, Ryan has already landed his first directing gig on Virus X headlined by name actors.

What themes and ideas intrigue you most as a filmmaker?

Love – both the beautiful and terrible things it will make you do – choices and the potentially dire consequences they have, and intentionality – how well-meaning actions can cause harm when misguided - also the value of life and its relativity.

How did you go about setting up the production of Finale and getting everyone involved? What brought you to the locations you used? Did you get a lot of local support in the area?

I met the majority of my team studying at the University of Southern California. Ryan and I shot a short together, then a music video, then test footage specific to Finale, and cut them into a short demo to scare up grants from Kodak, Panavision and Laser Pacific. That lent us credibility to private investors to raise our financing. We cast our two leads in Los Angeles and then set out for the post-industrial wasteland on the outskirts of my hometown in Middle America, where I knew we would find abandoned houses, dirt roads, backwoods, crypt-like passages and cemeteries to film in. Locals offered amazing support and hospitality – donating use of a generator, hospital, church, transportation, furniture and a lot of volunteer hours. But to build the cult set, we needed Los Angeles’ equipment and actor resources, so we finished it here.

Did you have a particular writing process throughout this project?

I like to mull over new ideas while working on the project at hand, and then hammer out the first draft in a single go. After outlining Finale, I wrote it straight through in 5 days, then spent 6 months revising. Still, the biggest changes to the story happened in the editing room. After screening it for feedback, we discovered a lot could be cut out – it taught me a tremendous amount about writing.

Apparently you guys had a few encounters with the local police whilst filming!? What happened?

We had 13 encounters, to be precise! We got held up at gunpoint by police who mistook us for burglars, I got pulled over shirtless and covered in blood, a local man found our prop pipe-bombs, called the police, who called the FBI, who shut down the highway and brought in a bomb-squad robot to blow them up. By the end of the shoot, when I went in to the police station to retrieve the belongings they’d confiscated, everyone in the station knew me.

How was the experience directing your first feature? What were the positive experiences working on such a low budget project? Were there any drawbacks?

It was heart-breaking and amazing all bound together. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Working on your own project gives you freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, and correct them. If we’d had to turn this around in a couple months, it would have been a disaster. Because it was so spread out, I had time to re-evaluate what was working, what wasn’t, and to grow as an artist. Principal photography was a nightmare – we worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week for a month and a half straight, with only two days off. We were ready to decapitate each other by the end. But the next round of shooting went better, and the next even smoother. It’s all a learning process, and while it sucked making papier-mâché corpses for two months, or sitting in a dark room sound designing for 3, or editing for over a year – the lessons I learned are invaluable, and I know my next project will absolutely kick ass!

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

For me, the most effective horror movies focus on character development, with a strong protagonist chasing a concrete goal. Too often in contemporary horror films, the audience is just waiting for everyone to die. That’s fucking dull. I enjoy the thrill and adrenaline of fear, so not much scares me – but the rare films that do, like 28 Days Later or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, had a commitment to the reality of the world created in the film. The zombies were real. Friends were dying. A good horror comedy like Drag Me to Hell has its place in my heart, but in a straight horror film, I want the characters to fear for their existence.

What is next for you? Any ideas or projects you can tell me about?

My next project is a gritty thriller – Kiss Before the Slaughter – set on the border between the US and Mexico. We’re pitching it around Hollywood, seeking serious funds. After doing Finale, we’re ready to take on a big film, and Kiss is an insane ride. When that’s complete, I will return to supernatural horror with a haunted house film! Finale will go on sale in the US May 2010, and Jinga - our UK sales Agent - is trying to close international deals as we speak. Keep your fingers crossed for a release!

For more info, check out:

Finale official website and Myspace.

Fire Trial Films.

Finale

2009
Dir. John Michael Elfers

A family is torn apart by the death of the oldest son - who seemingly committed suicide. Helen (Carolyn Hauck), the boy’s mother, is convinced that her son was the victim of a bizarre satanic cult. Her investigation not only threatens to tear her family apart, but also her own sanity. As she begins to descend into a dark world of paranoia, death and despair, she is stalked by a demonic, mirror-dwelling figure…

Finale is a film positively saturated in a dark and rich gothic atmosphere, seeping with dread and anxiety. Director John Michael Elfers has a keen eye and a knack for startling visuals, and he imbues his film with the look and feel of lurid supernaturally tinged Italian giallo flicks from the Seventies. At times his camera is possessed by exactly the same creativity and panache that haunted the early work of Raimi, Argento and Jackson. Finale at times not only recalls the lurid atmospherics of Bava and Argento, particularly the latter’s Mother of Tears; with its scenes soaked in carnal sexuality, forbidden desire and laced with sado-erotic imagery, but it also manages to weave together a thoroughly gripping and moving story that should draw the viewer into this weird and warped world of high school cults, murder cover-ups and maternal anxieties.

The core of the story is the heartbreak and denial suffered by a family as they attempt to understand and come to terms with the alleged suicide of their eldest son, Sean (Warren Bryson). They each have different ways of dealing with the tragedy – brother Charlie (Geoff Burkman) buries himself in his college studies, father Peter (James Johnson) throws himself into his work – and isn’t adverse to knocking back the odd glass of scotch or two of an evening, while sister Kathryn (Suthi Picotte) attempts to fit in more at school. So much so in fact, she joins her brother’s former drama class. Where all is not as it seems… Sean’s mother Helen finds that she is unable to accept that her son ended his own life, and as she begins the painful task of sorting through his belongings, she finds some seriously disturbing truths about her son – particularly in the contents of his diary. Her son was caught up in serious trouble - otherworldly trouble. The splashes of black paint that polluted the various reflective surfaces of his house gradually make their way into Helen’s house, as she believes the demon responsible for his death, is now hounding her, bringing with it the insanity that their son apparently suffered and causing her family to worry about her mental health.

Finale is liberally spattered with striking and disturbing imagery, particularly a number of dream sequences that are as unnerving as they are strangely alluring and darkly erotic. Helen walks in her sleep and as she does so, she dreams. When she enters her son’s house for the first time after his death to collect his possessions Helen does so in her dreams; in doing this the fragile lines between reality and nightmares, sanity and madness that become ever thinner throughout the course of this dark tale, are vividly highlighted. Helen emerges from a wrecked car deep in the woods, and wanders through a strange and haunting landscape, with shadows flitting around her and a long shawl billowing out behind her. The bathed-in-red scenes featuring the bizarre cult rituals are also doused with a lurid and morbid sensuality and the highly creepy demonic figure that flits between mirrors is really a sinister sight to behold; resembling some pale, straight-jacketed monstrosity with a bevy of helpless victims writhing at his feet. These are but a couple of the many astounding, psychotically lit images Elfers conjures throughout the story. Effective use is also made of the various locations - mainly Sean’s ramshackle Victorian house in the woods and a nearby collection of abandoned industrial buildings beside a cemetery.

The performances are uniformly strong, particularly those of Carolyn Hauck as Helen and Suthi Picotte as Kathryn. Though Helen is a desperate woman, and her families’ gradual suspicions that she has finally cracked make for involving drama, thanks to Hauck’s performance and conviction, she is still a strong female character who wouldn’t seem out of place alongside Argento’s typically strong-willed heroines. Finale is an extremely taut and well crafted story that is finely tuned and orchestrated as it races towards a richly satisfying and suspenseful climax. Strong visuals and tight editing aside, it is also successful in telling an enthralling story and creating characters we care for.

The denouement, when it comes, it utterly devastating in its impact and while a few stones are left unturned, it doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness. John Michael Elfers is a name to keep an eye out for. He is a highly imaginative and passionate filmmaker destined for big things if Finale is anything to go by.

A highly atmospheric, deeply unsettling and ultimately unforgettable horror film. With heart.

Paracinema: Issue 9

The brand-spanking new issue of Paracinema is almost upon us... It is available to pre-order - simply click here to pick up a copy.

If you're a lover of intelligent, well written, beautifully crafted magazines that are created by fans of genre cinema, for fans of genre cinema - you really should pick up a copy. Plus, you'll be supporting independent publishing - which is always a good thing.

Amongst the dazzling array of great features included in this, the 9th issue(!) are:
The Death and Life of Cinema: An interview with Joe Dante by Brian Saur, Emanuelle, Transnationality and the Cannibalisation of Cultures by Ben Buckingham, Australia’s Hollywood Pioneers and those who followed by Bruce J. Patience and Devastating Color: Horror and magic in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s The Wizard of Gore by Madelon Hoedt.

Get it now. Before it's too late!