Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Dir. Dario Argento

Generally regarded as one of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's finest films (and rightly so), Tenebrae marked the director's return to the giallo genre which he implicitly popularised, after his detour into supernatural gothic horror with Suspiria and Inferno. Based on the filmmaker’s own experiences of an unhinged fanatic obsessed with his work, Tenebrae follows the story of American mystery-thriller novelist Peter Neal, whose arrival in Rome to promote his latest title coincides with a series of violent murders – the perpetrator of which claims to have been inspired by Neal’s latest book. When the author himself begins to receive death threats from the killer he must use his literary know-how to snare the slasher before he becomes the next victim.

Tenebrae was added to the Video Nasty list and banned on video in the UK until 1999, when it was released with severe cuts. The film was finally passed uncut and uncensored in 2002. Now, this definitive version of Tenebrae comes to DVD and (for the first time in the UK) Blu-ray, courtesy of Arrow Video, and boasts a brand new HD restoration which perfectly showcases Argento’s inimitable style and sado-chic. Despite its title (which is Latin for ‘darkness/shadows’), Tenebrae is a bright, stark and strikingly lit film (cinematographer Luciano Tovoli also lensed Argento’s candy-coloured Suspiria and forthcoming Dracula 3D) – and the new HD restoration really helps it pop off the screen like you’ve never seen before.

Unfolding as a cunningly reflexive critique of the Italian giallo, as well as Dario Argento’s own distinct body of work, Tenebrae directly addresses the accusations of misogyny often hurled at the director throughout his opulent and bloodily-hewn career. Containing some of his most iconic imagery and providing a commentary on the nature of violence in cinema and literature, Tenebrae also sees Argento actively examining some of his most reoccurring themes and preoccupations with a savage precision, as well as namedropping some of his literary influences such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Freudian psychology, sexual deviancy, repressed trauma, voyeurism/spectatorship and the sexualisation/fetishisation of violence and death are all on bold display throughout this twisted story which is also pierced with a slew of heavily stylised murder set-pieces, the likes of which are usually associated with the director’s cinema.

Further highlighting Argento’s stylish and reflexive approach to depicting violence, a number of carefully orchestrated moments work to lift us out of the narrative to objectively consider what is happening on screen. Not only are the audience placed firmly in the role of ‘voyeur’, but we’re also made to consider this very notion and our role as active spectators. Argento works to purposefully detach us from the story with several technically impressive camera shots – including one where the camera scales a victim’s house in one seamless take, navigating walls and floating over the roof, peering in through windows. As dazzling as it is, the shot doesn’t further the narrative, nor does it represent anyone’s POV; it exists simply to remove us from the ‘reality’ of the film and because Argento enjoys showcasing his technical prowess. At other times, his more usual approach of utilising the camera to show us events from the murderer’s point of view are in full effect. The result is a dizzying malaise of artistically framed shots which alternate between disrupting the narrative and thrusting us deep into the very midst of the ensuing onscreen mayhem. It’s also no coincidence that many of the victims gaze, almost longingly, into the camera and directly at us, not only implying our involvement in their violent deaths, but also serving as a reminder that they’re happening for our entertainment.

Despite all the slyly subversive reflexivity, Tenebrae also functions as an engrossing murder mystery. Typical of the genre, it boasts shoals of red herrings with various motives, a psychologically fractured killer sporting black leather gloves and a penchant for hacking up sexually liberated women, and the story twists and turns delivering a slew of shocking revelations that enhance the mystery and thicken the plot as Argento toys with audience/character perception and perspective. As mentioned, the look of the film is really rather striking and the Rome depicted in it is not the Rome usually portrayed in cinema; no landmarks or typical baroque architecture are on display - instead it is presented as an anonymous, nearly futuristic city, devoid of character and full of eerie, well-lit and sparsely peopled streets and squares which adds to the unusual, coldly detached tone of proceedings; as does the bombastic electronic score by ex-Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli and Elsa Morante.

Special Features

Arrow Video has really delivered the goods with their release of Tenebrae. Not only are fans treated to a stunning brand new HD restoration of the film, but they also get an introduction by Daria Nicolodi; audio commentary with Argento experts, journalists and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones and a second audio commentary track with Argento expert Thomas Rostock.
Jones and Newman’s track is bursting with all sorts of exclusive insights as the two have an engaging and lively chat – Jones providing behind the scenes anecdotes and facts, and Newman providing an accessible critique. Rostock’s commentary unfolds as an entirely different beast: a hardcore dissection of the film and a highly detailed and academic analysis. For anyone who takes their Argento films seriously, the abundance of information, readings and thoughts on the subtextuality shimmering beneath the surface of Argento’s masterful and cosmopolitan giallo, this track really is a must!

Elsewhere, Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi remembers Tenebrae boasts an interview with the ever-candid and revealing Daria Nicolodi – Argento’s former partner and muse. Reflecting on her role in Tenebrae – which she describes as ‘bland’ – Nicolodi reminisces on working with the other cast and crew and the problems the film had with censors upon its release. She also discusses some of the more memorable technical aspects of the film, such as how its unique look was obtained and its special effects realised. Never one to not speak her mind, the relaxed and informative actress also reflects upon Argento’s former ‘rock star’ status in Italy and how she was ‘coerced’ into playing such a small role in this collaboration.

The Unsane World of Tenebrae – an interview with Dario Argento features the director discussing the origins of the film and how it was received in Italy when released back in the early 80s. He freely discusses how he’d deliberately moved away from the giallo into fantasy horror when the cinemas became saturated with gialli after his trailblazing debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Argento appears in fine form and even makes a few jokes while reflecting on his work and the allegations of misogyny it was usually greeted with.

A Composition for Carnage – Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrae features the composer discussing his work throughout the years with Argento and the influence of dance and electronic music on the score for Tenebrae. He also chats about censorship and violence in cinema and culture.

If all of that isn’t enough, the disc also includes footage of a Goblin concert in Glasgow (in which they perform tracks from Tenebrae and Phenomena), an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on Tenebrae by Alan Jones, author of “Profondo Argento”; four sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned artwork; double-sided fold-out poster; original trailer; English and Italian mono audio options; optional English subtitles.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Who Saw Her Die?

Dir. Aldo Lado

When the young daughter of Venice based sculptor Franco is heinously murdered, he and his estranged wife begin an investigation to track down the killer. Meanwhile the body-count continues to grow as the crazed maniac bloodily dispatches anyone who strays too close to discovering the truth about their identity.

Set in Venice and featuring the story of a grief-stricken family crippled by the death of their child, Who Saw Her Die? is in many ways uncannily similar to Nicolas Roeg’s startling masterpiece Don’t Look Now, which was released only a year after. Opening with the shockingly frank and brutal murder of a little girl on a snowy mountain in France, Lado’s film really hits the ground running, however while its central mystery constantly intrigues as it twists and turns unendingly, it never really manages to repeat the power of this opening scene. Focusing on Franco’s obsession with finding his daughter’s killer, the film unfolds as in typically glorious giallo fashion, with red-herrings galore, a convoluted and serpentine plot, expertly staged murder sequences and the revelation of the killer coming out of nowhere.

Director Lado was born in Venice, and he films it through the eyes of someone who is intimately familiar with its labyrinthine alleyways and canals. He builds a dank atmosphere of dread and depicts the city as a crumbling, damp and inherently sinister place full of faded beauty and grandeur. The film subverts the usual connotations of water with cleansing and purification and instead associates it with death. This is nicely evoked in a number of moments, such as when Roberta is given a necklace with the astrological symbol for Aquarius on it, prefiguring the discovery of her body in the canal, and what with it being set in Venice and all, there really is no avoiding water! Lado utilises his locations well and Who Saw Her Die? boasts some incredible camerawork, particularly evident in the set piece involving four characters locked in a taut game of cat and mouse in a warehouse which exhibits a dizzying and Escheresque warped logic.

Despite the heart-aching subject matter, Who Saw Her Die? is a strangely unemotional film. Even though we follow Franco’s desperate attempts to find out who murdered his daughter, and it is he who is the anchor and focus of the film, his pain and turmoil is never really expressed sufficiently. George Lazenby delivers an utterly passionless performance that seems to compliment the unfeeling and frigid mood of the film perfectly, while Anita Strindberg, so compelling to watch in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, delivers a similarly detached performance. As the doomed Roberta, Italian horror stalwart Nicoletta Elmi (whose impressive film work includes roles in such genre classics as Demons, Deep Red, Baron Blood, Flesh for Frankenstein and Bay of Blood) is sufficiently vulnerable and innocent, which serves to highlight the tragedy of her bloody fate. Their family unit is already fractured prior to their daughter’s death and it is only through her death that Franco and Elizabeth reunite. Their reunion is a cold one and the scene depicting it is detached, austere and contains no passion or warmth. A simple but beautiful overhead shot depicts them lying side by side; Elizabeth has tears rolling down her face, Franco has his back to her. The limp thrusting intercut with this conveys nothing but impassivity and bleak resignation. Had the performances been rawer and more emotional, Who Saw Her Die? would have been a film with incredible power.

An unsavoury undercurrent flows throughout proceedings, as most - if not all - of the adult male characters appear to have a dubious interest in Roberta. A number of awkward moments occur as they gaze at her a little too longingly… This is of course Lado’s attempt to establish red herrings and cast suspicion on everyone, and the effect is highly sinister. The child’s murder is revealed to be the latest in a string of murders of other young girls who all had red hair and a strange woman dressed in black mourning clothes and veil is seen nearby. She is a haunting, striking and formidable sight. Flashbacks lace the narrative, as do sinister point of view shots filmed from under the dark veil as the killer closes in on each victim. Close-up shots of the killer’s eyes behind the veil also glare from the screen with unsettling power. The flashbacks, which depict previous murders, convey the killer’s fractured mind and psycho-sexual hang-ups, and their appearance comes without warning; they simply perforate the narrative momentarily; the jarring effect of which is highly perturbing.

Lado has a knack for creating pointedly political films, particularly as far as his gialli are concerned (also see Short Night of Glass Dolls – a stunningly filmed, fiercely original and deeply eerie giallo), and Who Saw Her Die? can be read as a barbed criticism of the Catholic Church. This reading of the film seems to be dispelled at the very end however, when the last line of dialogue reveals something about the killer that is not only random, but also feels tacked on and unnecessary. The moment undoes Lado’s seemingly scathing critique of Catholicism as a corrupt institution. The film really benefits from Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, which comprises of choral pieces featuring a cacophony of infantile voices echoing in and out of each other. It immediately conjures the innocence of childhood and is shot through with an alarming urgency that becomes increasingly sinister, disorientating and panicked as the layers of voices increase. A potent and mesmerising bass line usually signifies the killer’s presence and the use of church organs adds an element of the ecclesiastical to events, which enhances Lado’s arguably anti-Catholic subtext.

In short, Who Saw Her Die? is not without its flaws, and one can only imagine how powerful it would be had its protagonists been portrayed with more emotional resonance, but it is still a striking, daring giallo, beautifully filmed and constructed, and a fantastic follow on from Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls.

I recently wrote a feature called "Sketches of Venice in Red: A Comparative Glance at Who Saw Her Die? and Don’t Look Now."

It appears in issue 12 of Paracinema.
You can pick up a copy of it here.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key

Dir. Sergio Martino

Alcoholic writer Oliviero (Luigi Pistilli, Bay of Blood) and his timid, long-suffering wife Irina (Anita Strindberg, Lizard in a Woman's Skin) live a self-destructive existence in their isolated and crumbling villa. When Oliviero’s mistress is the first victim in a series of vicious murders, he becomes the prime suspect – and when his sexy niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech, Strip Nude for Your Killer) suddenly arrives for a visit, things become increasingly complicated as a series of double-crossings and shifting character dynamics add to the air of stifling paranoia. Irina finds comfort in Floriana’s arms – and bed – and the two decide to bump off Oliviero, Diabolique-style. Throw in a few scenes of Sapphic love-making, an ominous and seemingly ubiquitous black cat, lush gothic trimmings, several vicious murders, and you have a fantastically vintage, sex-charged and moody giallo that rates right up there with the best of ‘em.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key – the absurdly extravagant title of which comes from a note written to the titular protagonist in Sergio Martino’s first foray into the giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh - is a very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s feverish tale of psychological turmoil and revenge, “The Black Cat.” While the film certainly explores themes from that story, it is really only in the third act that it obviously mines the source material. Elsewhere Martino is content to mount an increasingly suspenseful and character-driven murder mystery which successfully sets itself apart from other gialli by boasting unusual gothic influences and a morbid atmosphere, heavily pregnant with dark connotations of madness, decay, incest and shades of necrophilia.

Your Vice is predominantly character-driven and the various dynamics between the three protagonists are constantly shifting. The opening scene establishes the passive/aggressive relationship between Oliviero and Irina. In the middle of a party Oliviero proceeds to humiliate an already edgy Irina by forcing her to drink a cocktail made up of his guests’ unfinished drinks. When Floriana comes on the scene, the dynamic is shifted once she seduces and ‘comforts’ Irina, trying to convince her to kill Oliviero. Later on we realise that Floriana is bedding him too and is playing the already emotionally estranged couple off against one another, hopping from one bed to the next. Ernesto Gastaldi’s screenplay works to build up suspicion and doubt around everyone. Also typical of Martino’s gialli, there are several murderers with different motives working in tandem which adds to the mystery and arguably convoluted plot – but hey, it keeps things ticking over nicely. One of the killers essentially holds no significance to the overall story aside from helping to up the body count, cast more suspicion on Oliviero and provide several moody and tautly mounted death scenes.

Incest and necrophilia supply the film with an odd subtext, which helps to flesh out the characters and add to their perverted traits. Heavy allusions to the incestuous relationship between Oliviero and his domineering mother pierce proceedings. When the party guests of the opening scene have left, Irina, decked out in Oliviero’s mother’s resplendent gown, quizzes Oliviero about his relationship with his mother and is subsequently raped by him. Floriana also uses the gown to seduce him, and in one of the standout set pieces, the maid Brenda also dons the gown after tip-toeing around the house one night when she hears what sounds like a cat wailing. Momentarily pleasuring herself in front of a mirror while Oliviero spies on her, she is soon terrified by strange noises and the raging storm outside. Panicking, she flees and is killed at the top of the stairs by an unseen assailant. Her mutilated corpse is walled up in the cellar by Oliviero, who believes that the police will suspect him of her murder. The strange mix of typical giallo imagery (black leather gloved hands wielding sharp implements) and gothic trappings (the gown, the thunderstorm) creates an interesting, heady moment.

The film retains a sparse look, with the sprawling feel of the vast and crumbling villa and the manner in which Martino’s camera prowls around it creating a sense of foreboding and unnamed menace. Bruno Nicolai’s haunting score also enhances the strangely gothic ambiance, as do the various scenes of a wide-eyed and nightgown clad Strindberg tiptoeing through the dark hallways – evoking imagery of bygone Italian gothic horrors by the likes of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda. In typical Poe fashion, the villa in which the story unfolds is a manifestation of the psychological disintegration of its inhabitants. The film also abounds with nods to the likes of Hitchcock’s gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940) and Freda’s dark necrophiliac romance The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, especially in its use of the portrait of Oliviero’s dead mother which serves as a reminder of the past and all the dank secrets forever entombed within it. A creepy moment that would later be echoed in Kubrick’s The Shining, is also a sly throwback to the moment in so many past gothic horrors where a musical instrument (actually a typewriter in this instance) is heard in the night, only for whoever is investigating to discover no one is playing/using it…What she finds is pretty chilling.

The film is bolstered by strong performances. As the submissive and driven-to-the-brink-of-madness Irina, Anita Strindberg is very convincing. She goes from weak and tormented to pushed-over-the-edge madwoman with ease, while Edwige Fenech plays against her usual giallo-type (the doe-eyed victim) as the scheming, manipulative and prone to undressing Floriana. A little sympathy is garnered for Oliviero by Luigi Pistilli, who plays him as an alcoholic and tortured artist, helplessly locked in an abusive relationship with his wife, whom he punishes for his own shortcomings. Sadly, Ivan Rassimov as a mysterious stalker-type is criminally underused, and really only shows up properly towards the end...

Martino’s gialli may lack the rich subtext of, say, those of Argento or Bava, but they are still vastly entertaining, stylish, atmospheric and slickly produced works. All of them were experimental in their own way and featured many memorable, stand out moments – odd that they are so often overlooked when it comes to the genre. Your Vice is one of his most striking and a must for any giallo fan.

Planet of the Vampires

Dir. Mario Bava

AKA Terror en el Espacio

Two interplanetary ships on an exploratory expedition into deepest, darkest, unchartedest space receive a distress signal from Aura, an unexplored and seemingly deserted planet. When the ships are pulled into its gravitational pull and crash land on the ominous surface, the surviving crew members gradually fall victim to the disembodied inhabitants of the world who begin to possess their minds when they sleep. They also possess the bodies of the dead and use the animated corpses to stalk and kill the remaining survivors in an attempt to get off the planet which is about to go postal...

Based on Renato Pestriniero's short story “One Night of 21 Hours”, Planet of the Vampires is a bit of a misnomer – the alien entities that possess the bodies and minds of the crew are more like ‘body-snatchers’ than blood-thirsty vampires. That’s by-the-by though; the title is as wonderfully kitsch, exploitative and lurid as the film itself. In short – it’s totally fitting. While there are undeniable moments of kitsch courtesy of dated costumes and sets, they don’t detract too much from the masterfully eerie atmosphere Bava conjures.

Bava specialised in creating striking and sumptuous looking films with relatively little money. He relied on ingenuity and a penchant for optical effects which have for the most part, stood the test of time. In this film he combines live-action filming with miniature sets and models by reflecting the sets through a mirror that had portions of its reflective surface scraped away so the actors could be seen through it. The result is quite breathtaking. Sure, some of the sets are dated, but with Bava lighting and filming them in that inimitable way of his, they’re imbued them with a distinctly gothic and oddly psychedelic majesty, elevating what is essentially a bargain basement B-movie, to something much more commanding. The film is often credited with being a major influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien particularly in terms of its narrative structure and set design. This is no more evident than in the beautifully haunting scene where the ship’s macho captain and his female companion explore a derelict alien vessel and discover the giant skeletal remains of an alien crew. From the cylindrical passageways to the grotesquely oversized alien remains, one can’t but wonder if O’Bannon and Scott had sneaked a peak at Planet of the Vampires before penning Alien (they claim they hadn’t).

A rather stifling air of paranoia begins to manifest as the crew fall prey to the disembodied entities as they sleep. The dead crew members are buried in makeshift graves on the surface of the planet and as they rise from them, wrapped in plastic burial shrouds, the result is really striking and calls to mind similar imagery in the likes of Black Sunday and the future work of Fulci. They are more space zombies than vampires. The majority of the story features the crew exploring the surface of this strange new world, and of course we’re happy for Bava’s narrative to meander along this path as everything looks so beautiful and eerie – all sinister ground fog and spookily glowing lighting. It is really only in the third act when tension begins to mount as the last survivors engage in a race against time (and each other) to escape Aura before they are dominated completely by their alien nemeses.

The film’s weak spots include the technobabble-tastic script, awkward dubbing and disposable characters who at times are hard to differentiate. Fans of Italian cult movies shouldn’t be too put off by these aspects; and of course they really add to the film’s irresistible kitsch appeal. The interior scenes of the crews’ ship are also pretty dated and more closely resemble left-overs from Lost in Space or Star Trek; all spacious soundstages and control panels with throbbing lights and weird electronic bleeps. It is the exterior scenes where Bava really succeeds in creating a memorable and hauntingly beautiful landscape that seeps with a gothic otherworldliness.

Planet of the Vampires is a pulpy, lurid comic-strip of a movie in which fans of Bava and cult sci-fi/horror flicks will find much to drool over. It also works well as a companion piece to Queen of Blood for those wanting a kitschy sci-fi double bill to die for. Masterfully lensed and saturated in a foreboding atmosphere, it is a much better film than it has any right to be - and all because of the imagination and ingenuity of Mario Bava.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Behind the Scenes of Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D

Asia bares her fangs...
Dario Argento is currently ensconced in shooting his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, 'Dracula'. Filming began in Hungary (where Argento previously filmed Phantom of the Opera and produced Michele Soavi's The Church) in June and the film stars Rutger Hauer (as Van Helsing), Thomas Kretschmann (as Dracula), Marta Gastini (as Mina) and Asia Argento (as Lucy). A few on-set photos have found their way online courtesy of Asia Argento… 

According to Alan Jones’s on-set reports, filming has gone well thus far and the shoot has proved something of an Argento ‘family’ reunion. Working with the Maestro again are the likes of special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti (who has worked on the majority of Argento's films since Phenomena in 1985), cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who also lensed Argento’s gothic masterpiece Suspiria and edgily reflexive giallo Tenebrae), production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (The Stendhal Syndrome, Phantom of the Opera, Sleepless and The Card Player) and ex-Goblin composer Claudio Simonetti, who has worked extensively with Argento since they collaborated on Deep Red in 1975.

Descending to the crypts
Jones commented that the film is imbued with a ‘post-modern Hammer style’ and that Tovoli is aiming for a look that will be ‘classic, expressionistic, romantic and naturalistic all at the same time.’ Kretschmann also remarked on the unique look of the film, describing it to Alan Jones as "Splatter Visconti!"

Also according to Jones’s reports, Argento remarked to him “Once you've shot in 3D you will never go back." Hardly surprising to hear as Argento has consistently pushed the boundaries of film making technology in his native Italy throughout his blood-splattered career – his film The Stendhal Syndrome for example, was the first ever Italian production to utilise CGI, so it makes sense that he’d eventually experiment with 3D, especially now that it has become so ubiquitous.

As Asia is portraying Lucy, the Count’s first victim when he arrives in England, this will mark the first time she dies onscreen for father Dario. And the second time she’ll share screen time with Kretschmann (the first was during the sadistic and sordid The Stendhal Syndrome), who told Alan Jones: "When Dario called me up offering the role he said to think of it as a Stendhal sequel as I would be treating Asia (Lucy) just as badly!"

Dracula 3D will wrap soon, and early word is that Argento hopes it will be released in March, 2012 and he says that his screenplay is very faithful to Stoker’s text. With horror cinema experiencing something of a gothic revival (The Wolfman, Red Riding Hood et al), an obsession with all things fanged and blood-thirsty (Let the Right One In, a remake of Fright Night on the way) and pop-culture generally sopping with depictions of lovelorn/lustful vampires (True Blood, Vampire Diaries, erm, Twilight?) at present, the time is ripe for a revisit to Stoker’s source material, which arguably kick-started the whole mainstream acceptance/popularity of the vampire.  

Asia and Thomas


Marta Gastini as Mina

Asia and Alan

The Pack

Dir. Franck Richard

For several years now, some of the most extreme, controversial, sadistic and downright innovative contributions to horror cinema have been coming out of France. Kick started by Alex Aja’s influential Switchblade Romance/Haute Tension, other titles in this ‘new wave’ of French horror, or ‘New French Extremity’, have included the likes of Inside/À l'intérieur, Sheitan, Ils, Martyrs, Frontier(s), the Belgian film Calvaire and the work of Gaspar Noé. While The Pack may arguably pale slightly in comparison to the likes of these, it has more than its fair share of twists, turns, grotesquely violent imagery and socio-political subtext to ensure it remains a fascinating, if slightly flawed work.

Beginning as a somewhat typical, though no less tautly wound riff on the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes, an impetuous young city woman picks up a hitchhiker while driving through deepest, darkest France and winds up a captive of some deranged farming folk/French 'hillbillys' at a remote diner. A few scenes where some typical ‘torture-porn’ conventions ensue, as she is beaten, caged up, branded with a hot iron and force-fed some iron-rich substance through what can only be described as the cruel reverse of a cow milking machine.

After this, and the introduction of the titular ‘pack’ of creatures, the film tills its most fertile ground and The Pack shifts gear into what can only be described as French Folk Horror. The plight of rural communities and long forgotten folk traditions as industrialisation cuts through the countryside (evidenced in the numerous shots featuring vast pylons stabbing through the otherwise untainted landscapes) seems to be behind what drives the formidable matriarch La Spack (Jeunet regular Yolande Moreau) and her seemingly trampled son, Max. Driven to insanity after the authorities let her sons die underground in a mining accident rather than risk a firedamp explosion, La Spack ritualistically offers her sons and the land under which they dwell, blood sacrifices in the form of anyone unfortunate enough to stumble across her path. Similar territory was explored in the likes of The Wicker Man and the more recent Wake Wood, in which rural communities ostracised from the outside world dabble in dark arts and deeds to bloody, dour effect. The idea of something evil and otherworldly coming up out of the soil and earth was also central to Blood on Satan’s Claw, another shining example of ‘folk horror.’

More grim light is shone on La Spack, her grisly customs and where they stem from when someone mentions that ancient folk traditions and beliefs of village elders included creatures ‘born of mud and the blood of the dead.’ We are told that ‘the earth wants blood’, and as relentless modernisation and industrialisation ever-encroach on ‘old ways’ of life and rural communities and their traditions, it requires gruesome extremes to obtain it. Shots of ancient farming equipment languishing unused under the moonlight and the dank, damp landscapes and rustic old farm buildings in which the story unfolds paint a picture of the neglect and plight of ruralism. A telling newspaper article found by one character rummaging through the bedrooms of the ramshackle farmhouse states: “We raped the earth, now its sending us its MONSTERS.” For me anyway, this is when the film is at its most innovative and original. The subterranean-dwelling creatures emerge, worm-like, as blood drips upon the land from the victims of La Spack as they are hung over it. The sight of them is unsettlingly effective: moon-white skin, no eyes and an abundance of snarled mouth and teeth (think Chatterer from Hellraiser).

There are nods aplenty to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and at several stages Hooper’s metaphorical presentation of people as cattle is taken quite literally. As evidenced in Hooper’s classic, an off-kilter sense of humour drizzles throughout The Pack, too. As La Spack, Yolande Moreau provides a powerful performance, amply supported by French New Wave horror regular Philippe Nahon (interestingly cast against type here) as a retired cop and Émilie Dequenne as the tough-spirited Charlotte. In the opening scenes we are given so much information about her through such simple means: her car is loaded with all her possessions, there’s a torn photo in her wallet, she smokes (a lot), has tattoos and isn’t easily intimidated – as depicted in the stressful scene where she and her hitcher fall foul of a grubby biker gang.

Unfortunately, The Pack treads all-too obvious conventions of the genre in the run up to its climax (characters making silly decisions to further the narrative etc), and while this doesn’t really detract too much from its entertainment or make it less suspenseful, it could have used some of the ingenuity and evocative ideas featured earlier to really elevate it.

The Pack (cert. 18) was released on DVD (£15.99) by Icon Home Entertainment on 4th July 2011. The UK DVD release features specially commissioned exclusive artwork from acclaimed British film poster artist Graham Humphreys (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Evil Dead).

Monday, 4 July 2011

Kiss Before the Slaughter

John Michael Elfers’ feature debut Finale untwisted as a stunningly shot love letter to the Golden Age of Italian horror cinema. The film focuses on a family torn apart by the death of the oldest son - who seemingly committed suicide. Helen, the boy’s mother, is convinced that her son was the victim of a bizarre satanic cult and 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, where the line between nightmare and reality becomes increasingly fractured, she is stalked by a demonic, mirror-dwelling figure and the members of the mysterious cult who seem to have a strange connection with it…

As evidenced in such recent films as Amer, Julia’s Eyes and Andreas Marschall’s forthcoming Masks, the legacy of the Italian giallo movie continues to bleed into the work of contemporary filmmakers. Wearing its influences on its boldly blood-spattered sleeve, Finale drew on the supernaturally tinged Gothic horrors of Bava and Argento and, with the dark deeds of a bizarre cult at its heart, echoed other atmospheric and atypical gialli such as Sergio Martino’s hallucinogenic All the Colours of the Dark and Aldo Lado’s haunting Short Night of Glass Dolls.

With Finale, Elfers’ proved he is a director with a keen visual sense, a knack for creating arresting images and he positively saturated his debut in a dark and rich gothic atmosphere, seeping with dread. His follow-up feature, Kiss Before the Slaughter, looks set to unfold as a potent and bloody tale of love, sex and death set in the burnished and eerily beautiful landscapes of the Mexican desert. The story follows a young man called Bradley, as he attempts to find his ex-girlfriend Raquel a black-market lung transplant. He soon discovers that the underground organization who have agreed to help him, butchers unsuspecting "donors." Saving them, would mean losing her. Bradley vows to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves, but all she asks is that he let her die, to save a group of complete strangers. 

Voted onto the Blood List - an industry-insider list of the top not-yet-produced horror scripts in Hollywood – Kiss Before the Slaughter also won Best Screenplay at A Night of Horror International Film Festival in Sydney, Australia. Described as "Action, gore, sex and violence, but with romance at the heart”, Elfers has shot a trailer to raise financing for the film, which you can watch on the official website, here

Kiss Before the Slaughter’s trailer has also been entered into the International Movie Trailer Festival. Head over to their site to vote for the trailer and help get it some more exposure.

A while back I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing John Elfers about Finale, low budget film making and Italian horror. Check it out here.