Friday, 28 January 2011

Coralina: Life is Art / Art is Life

This month saw the release of a new book on the life/work of actress, artist, Dario Argento muse, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni. Cataldi-Tassoni has starred in the likes of Argento's Opera, Phantom of the Opera, Mother of Tears and Lamberto Bava's Demons 2 (produced by Argento). She is also a painter and writer. The book, edited and compiled by Filippo Brunamonti, boasts a collection of interviews and articles focusing on the work of the actress/artist and even features a number of pieces written by the likes of Dario Argento, Tim Lucas and Mick Garris.

'Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni (actress, painter, singer-songwriter, writer) is the fascinating protagonist of the book Coralina: Life is Art / Art is Life, published in a prestigious bilingual edition (English and Italian). Young journalist Filippo Brunamonti has collected exclusive interviews and essays by illustrious directors, artists, writers and critics (Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Mariano Baino, Mick Garris, Irene Miracle, Claudio Simonetti, Tim Lucas, Luca Barnabé and many others) that bear witness to an extraordinary respect and admiration for this internationally renowned artist who has fans worldwide.

The volume, in the words of its editor, is an authentic act of love towards Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, born and resident in Manhattan, who lived for many years in Rome. In a joyous mirror-play between great masters of the cinema who remember, speak and make you fall in love, color images of Coralina's paintings and rare photos come to life and lead the reader by the hand towards an exclusive interview with the artist.


The fantastic voyage in the world of Coralina begins on December 18th, 2010, at the Teatro delle Muse, Ancona, in occasion of the Corto Dorico Film Festival, with an event in honor of Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni.

Another event will take place on December 21st at Beba Do Samba in Rome (San Lorenzo). Amongst the invited guests are Dario Argento, Mariano Baino, Alessandro D'Alatri, Claudio Simonetti e Sergio Stivaletti.

Starting January, 2011, the volume, published by Argo-Cattedrale will be launched in the United States with a promotional tour in NYC, Los Angeles and Chicago.'

You can check out the trailer/short film Coralina: Based on a True Life, written and directed by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni and Mariano Baino, here.You can pick up a copy of the book here.
For more info, check out Coralina's official website.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Coralina a while back - you can read it here

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Dark Dramas and Twisted Psychologies - Southern Style: An Interview With Filmmaker Ryan Blake George

Ryan Blake George and Heather Horton in 'Edge'
Currently making a name for himself on the indie film festival circuit, writer/director/actor/producer Ryan Blake George is a maverick filmmaker on the rise. His films are dark, provocative, unflinching. As the director of a couple of slow-burning, intensely atmospheric shorts, he offers us brief glimpses into worlds that are seemingly familiar, before revealing them to be peopled by unhinged, damaged individuals bent on revenge; unreliable narrators, their psyches twisted through madness, passion and hate. In George’s films, the tension he creates is as stifling as the environs in which his stories humidly unfold. His first short, Edge, charts the psychological breakdown of a woman, seemingly caught in a troubled relationship with a man (played by George) who manipulates and humiliates her. Perverse fantasies, troubling mind-games and immoral bedroom liaisons culminate in a frenzied, sinisterly orchestrated bloodbath.

Further showcasing his ability to create and sustain gruelling tension with deceptive ease is his second short, Mississippi Sound. The winner of Best Short Film at the second Yellow Fever Film Festival in Belfast last August, the film focuses on past misdeeds dredged up when a pair of cousins fishing on the eponymous river find revenge on their minds. As a producer, George’s film work is no less daring or inventive and includes the bizarre Western/Sci-fi/Steampunk hybrid Nickel Children, the offbeat tale of a young boy who witnesses his parents’ murder and is forced to survive in an underground illegal child betting ring.

Currently working on setting up the New Orleans Horror Film Festival, I thought it high time I caught up with twenty-something Ryan Blake George to chat about his work, the challenges of indie filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock and what attracts him to the darker side of story-telling…

George calls the shots in front of, and from behind the camera, in 'Edge'
What kind of stories and themes appeal to you most? Where do you get your ideas and stories from?

Psychological horror and thrillers appeal to me most, as do dark dramas, comedies, and my newest interest ‘Steampunk.’ My good friend Kevin Eslinger turned me on to Steampunk with his film Nickel Children. The subgenre has great Victorian themes and a darkness that is new to me. Most of my own ideas come from current situations; I take my own experiences and try to find their darkest potential. There is nothing scarier then reality… You sit there and think, “Damn this could really happen!”

Your first film, a short entitled Edge, is the study of a woman’s psychological breakdown. Where did the idea come from?

I had a break up and thought I would try to work off my own resentment towards relationships at the time. It was a nasty winter with rain and snow for two straight months. I had bought a bottle of Jim Beam and sipped enough to start thinking outside of what was comfortable for me. I must say a little whiskey can really pull out some internal struggles, sometimes.


Heather Horton as the disturbed Jamie in 'Edge'
Given the morbid theme – a woman’s mental unraveling – was it a difficult shoot?

Overall the film went very well and we even wrapped a day early. Shooting is always a new experience and will always have good and bad moments. As a writer, getting there is always a problem. Hopefully by the time the script is locked, I know the theme and story well enough to experiment during shooting. The marriage between theme and story is the most difficult part for me. Most successful films seem to always have their theme, genre and story laid out before us at the beginning. Edge was difficult because I’m trying to tell a woman’s story and when you’re not a woman, well, it’s pretty tough!

Your second film, another short, Mississippi Sound is no less morbid. Essentially a two-hander, it explores the increasingly sinister dynamics between two cousins fishing in the titular river. What was the inspiration for it?

I always wanted to shoot something with a Southern Gothic theme. I had grown up in south Alabama and wanted to use the culture. I was inspired by actually taking trips up to the swampy family fish camp over the years. The main antagonist Paul was based on my grandfather. His life stories were crazy. He was shot, ran over, owned a strip club, and was married, we believe, at least five or six times. I wrote that film on location one hot summer day – along with a few adult beverages. The area has so much character within the people. All you really have to do is sit back and watch.



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

Yes, Mississippi Sound was very difficult to shoot. But with elements and obstacles such as the sun, boats, waves, heat, mud and alligators, who could complain? We were living the filmmakers’ dream at the ultimate location. The most challenging aspect was getting to and from the location. You could only get to the fish camp by boat and that was close to a two hour boat ride. Oh, and most of the crew refused to get in the water. Those city boys, for some odd reason, had never thought they ever had to set foot into those muddy, alligator infested waters. You should see them whining on some of the outtakes. Once a fish jumped out of the water and slapped the camera assistant in the face!

Given the bleak denouements evident in your film work thus far, is it fair to say that as an artist/filmmaker you are drawn to dark subject matters? Why?

Dark subject matters entertain the hell out of me! Either you dig the dark genre or you don’t. I never thought I would end up doing these types of films. I’m not a dark person by any means; I just enjoy the escape to the not so normal and intriguing side of life. I was raised in a southern American family. They have no clue as to what the hell is wrong with me! I guess I’m just a junkie for the dark side.

Jesse James Locorriere co-stars in 'Mississippi Sound'
In terms of genre, your films are quite hard to pin down – they seamlessly mesh genres to striking effect. How would you describe your own films?

I like to think my films leave the audience thinking. I always rate a film by how long the film stays in my mind after I watch it. I want people to be satisfied but hungry for more. My films are dark in theme, but more psychological in story. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

Ah yes, Hitchcock. When we met at last year’s Yellow Fever Film Festival in Belfast, you told me that Hitchcock was your biggest influence. In terms of constructing suspense and intrigue in your films, this really shows. What is it about Hitchcock you admire so much? What other filmmakers have influenced you?

Hitchcock created suspense and put a dark twist on it. Rope is one of my favourite Hitchcock films; amazing suspense in such a simple, one apartment setting. I admire the hell out of how he put things together. Stanley Kubrick is anther big inspiration. He gave all of himself when he made films. Like Hitchcock he knew where he was going with his films from the beginning. The Shining was a big influence for me. The build of suspense and character in the film is timeless. Both directors are true legends in filmmaking.

Throughout your career so far you’ve worked as a writer, director, an actor and a producer – do you have a role you prefer over the others? How come you’ve adopted so many roles?

When I was four or five, I would write plays entitled Santa vs Batman or Indiana Jones vs The Joker. I would spend the day doing set design all around my bedroom. Stringing Christmas lights and drawing on notebook paper, were the basics in my productions then. I always made my brother play the good guy while I played the bad guy. He hated that! I guess it all started there.
If you can start out in writing you will most likely get a better understanding of being an actor or director. Producing is fun for me. I get to stay on the sidelines when shooting and make sure that the project can be the best it can be. If I had to pick two roles that set my creative demons free, they would be writing and acting. Those go hand in hand in my mind. As an independent filmmaker, you learn to take the role that completes the project. If someone wants to cast or hire me I always ask them to have me read before they say yes. I would hate for them to miscast a role that should have belonged to someone else.

What are the most rewarding aspects of working as an independent filmmaker?

The most rewarding aspects in filmmaking are friends and freedom. Most of the independent filmmakers I work with love doing what they do. I love it; they love it – makes shooting a breeze. Having the freedom to create doesn’t hurt much either.

Ryan Blake George and Jesse James Locorriere in Mississippi Sound
When did you decide that filmmaking was what you wanted to do for a living?

I don’t think I was ever able to make the decision. I tried to run away from filmmaking multiple times. Even after film school I tried to give up and take a non creative job. If you are a creative person, sooner or later you will figure out that those jobs will never work for you. It can be your curse or blessing. Live it, own it, and love it.

Can you tell me about any current projects you’re working on?

I’m currently producing a film titled Divination with JT Seaton and the beautiful and legendary Lynn Lowry. She is an amazing person and a talented actress. I’ve also been busy on a new horror feature about Bigfoot! It should be a nice twist on the current take of the legendary beast. My latest project, again with JT, has been The New Orleans Horror Film Festival. A couple of my horror filmmaking friends and I put it together. It was created by filmmakers, for filmmakers. Submissions are opening soon and it will run from October 28th – 30th in the New Orleans French Quarter.

http://www.neworleanshorrorfilmfestival.com/

Monday, 24 January 2011

Through A Glass Darkly: Mirrors & Horror Films

Following on from 2008’s Kiefer Sutherland starring thriller Mirrors, which was based on the hair-raising Korean film Into the Mirrors, Mirrors 2 is a supernatural horror starring Emmanuelle Vaughier (Saw II) and Nick Stahl (Carnivale). Like its predecessor, it looks set to effectively exploit all kinds of spectrophobic (the fear of mirror images) notions as it follows the story of Max, a recovering addict struggling to come to terms with the car crash that killed his fiancĂ© and left him tortured with the memory of her death. Riddled with guilt and determined to try and make a new life for himself Max takes a job as nighttime security guard in the Mayflower department store, but as his nightshifts begin he sees visions of a young, mysterious woman in the store’s mirrors.

When he sets out to discover who she is, Max’s investigation reveals that the seemingly normal department store holds a dark secret and a bloody past. A series of horrifying and brutal murders ensues before long, and everyone connected with the store meet with nasty deaths. Can Max find out who the woman in the mirror is before the curse of the Mayflower consumes him? Find out on 24th January when Mirrors 2 is released on DVD

The mirror has featured heavily throughout horror cinema as a source of danger and fear. Connotations and ideas such as the fear of one’s self and the doppelganger, hang heavy around horror movie mirrors. They sometimes act as spooky gateways to other dimensions and realms from which demonic forces can enter our lives. Horror cinema is riddled with jump scares involving mirrors; we’re all too familiar with those scenes of someone standing in front of a bathroom mirror/medicine cabinet. They open the door, usually after staring tiredly at themselves and wondering if they’re crazy, then they close it – Bam! – someone is revealed to be standing behind them in the mirror – usually accompanied by a loud burst of shrill music. Sometimes mirrors feature more prominently in horror stories – the myth of Bloody Mary, anyone? – and are gradually revealed to be malevolent objects capable of harming those who gaze into them.

Mirrors (2008)
All of us look into a mirror at least once on a daily basis. What happens though when these everyday objects take on a more sinister dimension? The mirror has many connections to various superstitions throughout the world. Superstitions are not based on rationale and practical thought. They've evolved from ancient religious or supernatural practices and stem from various collective fears and anxieties. The mirror in particular is probably the focus of more superstitions than any other object. The most popular superstition involving the mirror is the widespread belief that if someone breaks one, they will suffer seven years of bad luck. Other superstitions are more sinister, such as the practice of covering all the mirrors in the house of someone who has just died. Perhaps this stemmed from the belief that souls could be trapped in mirrors, destined to peer out at their loved ones.

To tie in with the release of Mirrors 2 I thought it might be fun to have a look at a few other movies which explore the more creepy side of mirrors...

Mirror Mirror (1990). When shy Goth girl Megan moves to LA with her mother, she finds it hard to settle in. She’s ostracized by her peers at school and mercilessly bullied. Until she discovers an antique mirror in her new house, left there by the mysterious, previous tenants. Then her bullies just start dropping like flies in increasingly bizarre ways. Before long Megan has become obsessed with the mirror and the demonic power that inhabits it begins to take over her personality. Blending elements of Heathers and Carrie, Mirror Mirror never really musters the vitriolic edge it so desperately aims for. With a compelling central performance from Winona Ryder-like Rainbow Harvest however, it is never short on entertainment value, and boasts an intriguing premise, a sympathetic protagonist and satisfying revenge tale at its dark heart. It was followed by several sequels.

Mirror Mirror
Dead of Night (1945). Atmospheric horror anthology with a couple of genuinely chilling segments. While it is famed for closing story about a ventriloquist’s dummy that takes on a life of its own and torments its owner, the episode featuring a couple haunted by the previous owner of their antique mirror is an underrated gem. The moments when the room reflected in the mirror isn’t the room in which the mirror stands, are masterfully created and more than a little unnerving. The latest owner becomes possessed by the formidable previous owner and sets about trying to kill his wife as the prior owner had. The mirror’s horrific powers are only quashed when the wife smashes it, breaking the bizarre spell.

The Witch’s Mirror (1962). Something of a strange hybrid, this Mexican horror is actually one of the finest examples of its kind. Mixing elements of The Horrible Dr Hichcock, Mad Love, Eyes Without a Face and The Awful Dr Orloff, The Witch’s Mirror is the epitome of deranged fun and gothic melodrama. A woman murdered by her husband conspires to wreak revenge on him and his new wife from beyond the grave with the help of her magic mirror and witch godmother. Laced with striking images – including the swirling visions glimpsed in the titular mirror, disembodied hands scuttling to clutch at throats and a brooding atmosphere, this is a nightmarish and surprisingly effective delight.
 
Dead of Night
Dark Mirror (2007). When she moves her family into a new home, photographer Deborah begins to suspect sinister things are stirring from the house’s past. When she talks to her new neighbours she discovers that the previous owner, a famous artist, vanished in mysterious circumstances and that in Feng Shui traditions, the beautiful glass pane windows of the house were designed to trap evil spirits and stop them from entering. Deborah is further convinced something evil lurks within the house as she begins to glimpse alternate realities in the reflective surfaces around the house, and everyone she photographs dies in unnatural circumstances. Hauntingly ambiguous, Dark Mirror works as a study of a lonely woman’s increasingly fractured mind and also as a moody, lo-fi ghost tale.

Into the Mirror (2003). This South Korean shocker was remade in 2008 by director Alex Aja as the far less effective but still quite interesting, Mirrors. When he accidentally causes the death of his partner in a botched shoot-out, troubled young cop Yu Young-Min goes to work as a security guard for his uncle in a vast and sprawling shopping centre. A series of grisly deaths rip through the staff of the building – each one appearing to have committed suicide. Young-Min suspects something sinister is afoot, something that lurks within the strange mirrors adorning the walls of the building. Can he convince anyone he’s not crazy and solve the mystery before it’s too late? Probably.

Into the Mirror
The Mirror (1999). A Hong Kong portmanteaux consisting of several segments, each involving a mysterious antique mirror from the Ming Dynasty. The chain of disturbing events that ripple through each story starts in an ancient Chinese brothel where a girl is killed by a treacherous lover; just before she dies, when her blood spatters and stains the mirror, she puts a curse on it, dooming those who own it to a tragic death. From the Twenties, through the Eighties, right up to present day, the mirror ruins and eventually ends the lives of its various owners in three mildly creepy, Twilight Zone-esque tales.

Chermin (Mirror) (2007). Atmospheric Malaysian horror revolving around Nasrin, a young woman disfigured in a terrible car accident. Her mother discovers an antique mirror which, yeah you guessed it – is not an ordinary mirror! A restless spirit trapped inside it enables the mirror to reflect whatever it is Nasrin wants to see. She soon becomes obsessed with the mirror and in a desperate bid to regain her beauty, she offers herself up to the mirror spirit by satisfying its need for blood and revenge. Unfolding slowly and quietly, Chermin culminates in a bloody, frenzied exorcism scene that is sure to sate gore-hounds satisfactorily.

Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh
Honourable mentions should be given to Candyman – with its striking central urban legend of a mirror-dwelling killer with a hook for a hand who claims the lives of those who say his name five times while looking in a mirror, and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which unfolds as a creepy meditation on the nature of evil – with the devil attempting to enter the world through various mirrors in an old church. Carpenter provides some of his most unsettling imagery and Alice Cooper plays a menacing vagrant!

Mirrors II is out on 24th January 2010
Copyright: © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Format: DVD
Cert: 18
Extras: The Other Side: Making Mirrors 2;
Keeping It Real: The visual and special effects of Mirrors 2; Deleted Scenes

Friday, 21 January 2011

John Carpenter’s The Ward

2010
Dir. John Carpenter

After she sets fire to a house, troubled Kristen is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. It isn’t long before she becomes acquainted with the other inmates and realises that all is not as it seems in the hospital. Odd occurrences are afoot and gradually the number of inmates begins to dwindle. Are the stern doctors and their experimental treatments to blame? Or is something more supernatural afoot? When she fails to convince the staff that someone, or something, stalks the corridors at night, Kristen decides to take matters into her own hands… Mild chills and a slew of shock/jump moments ensue.

John Carpenter, like many of his contemporaries (George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, Wes Craven) experienced something of a freefall in the latter part of his career. Having created some of the most seminal, genre defining films so early on, Carpenter would eventually struggle to live up to the reputation he quickly cultivated for himself. His early filmography reads like a ‘greatest hits’ of genre cinema: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, Dark Star. Even when he wasn’t completely on top form, he was still making films other genre directors could only dream of: The Fog, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China. Then something happened. Later films such as Escape from LA and Body Bags only looked set to ease us into the disappointment and eventual nadir of his career thus far: Vampires and Ghosts of Mars (actually a guilty pleasure of this writer’s. Sorry).


The good news for Carpenter fans is that while John Carpenter’s The Ward is certainly not the return to form we’ve been longing for, it actually ain’t half bad, and is at least a step in the right direction for the previously AWOL maverick. While Carpenter wasn’t responsible for writing the screenplay, or even scoring the film (as is his usual custom), he still injects enough atmosphere and competently maintained suspense into proceedings to at least give us a little indication of who is behind the camera. The Ward is not a bad film. It is certainly not a great film, and one can’t help feeling that it is only because of Carpenter’s back catalogue that it feels so tepid. And a little anonymous. At times it feels like a film that is paying homage to the work of John Carpenter. While it exudes an oddly endearing old fashioned quality, it still lacks the verve and the requisite chills to make it a truly engaging affair. Sure, the acting is fine – stand out performance comes from Amber Heard, who proved with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane that she is fully equipped to carry a film – but the characters are just so thinly drawn and proceedings are just so workmanlike that they fail to muster the intensity such a premise promises. More successful, initally anyway, is the central mystery, and for a while, Carpenter maintains the is-she-or-isn't-she-insane angle quite well.


While the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the eponymous ward, Carpenter fails to create the same feeling of claustrophobia inherent in earlier offerings such as Assault on Precinct 13, Dark Star or Prince of Darkness. That said, the hospital is a damn creepy place and the director’s camera stalks the lonely halls with calculated menace. While Carpenter builds suspense slowly, assuredly, everything still exhibits a distinct ‘seen it all before’ quality. A number of recurring shots of the main corridor of the ward begin to grate a little, while a few gratuitous, though admittedly well orchestrated shocks mark the film as more ‘fun ride’ than a serious attempt to scare or unsettle the audience. The death scenes are well oiled but Carpenter relies too heavily on J-Horror stylisation instead of creating anything original. The make-up and SFX courtesy of Greg Nicotero et al are effective enough, and Carpenter wisely sticks to the ‘glimpse here, corner of the screen there’ approach when depicting ghostly goings on. CGI is wisely kept to a minimum and the short sharp bursts of violence punctuate proceedings with old-school gusto.

The characters are all the usual cookie-cutter misfit types you’d expect to see in a second rate movie set in a psychiatric hospital. They range from the kittenishly seductive Sarah (Danielle Panabaker, Friday the 13th remake), lesbian artist Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), self-harming instigator Emily (Mamie Gummer) to timid and mousy Zoey (Laura-Leigh). The wardens and nurses are as harsh and unsympathetic as they come, though as Dr Stringer, Jared Harris at least pretends to care for his patients. Some of the dialogue - particularly that spoken by Zoey - registers highly on the unintentionally funny radar, though it is testament to the skills of the actresses involved that they carry off their threadbare roles with some integrity. It is only really due to the foreseeable ‘twist’ that the stock characterisation can be accepted. I won’t say any more about this as even the less than attentive audience member should see what’s coming – though to the film’s credit, it is no less enjoyable a ride to the climactic ‘reveal.’ The by now obligatory ‘it’s-not-really-all-over-shock-ending-before-the-credits’ that most horror flicks now boast, can go fuck itself. Though I have to admit it made me jump clean out of my skin.


I went to an early evening screening of John Carpenter’s The Ward on this, its opening night. I opted to see this film instead of Black Swan, another film about sinister psychological shenanigans, albeit a more critically lauded one. Hey, I’m that big a John Carpenter fan. Aronofsky’s probably-masterpiece can wait. Alas, there were about seven or eight other people in the cinema – the majority of them were school boys who voiced their appreciation of the film, or rather of Amber Heard, quite a lot. They were also all too aware of the conventions Carpenter sticks rigidly to. They probably weren’t even born when Carpenter was trail blazing those very same conventions. Ingrates. It was a little sad to see the film in such lukewarm circumstances. But hey, it opened here without any fanfare at all, so maybe if one doesn’t allow expectations to get too high, one won’t be too disappointed. It is great to see Carpenter's work back on the big screen though. 

As mentioned, this is not a return to form, but it is at least a sign that Carpenter can still oil the cogs of suspense and turn out a competent, if rudimentary spook-fest.
And I’m sorry, but as tepid as the film is, it still doesn’t warrant that utterly half-arsed poster. Take it away!


In other news: John Carpenter is baaaaaaack! Let's hope his next offering is more in keeping with what we'd expect from him.

Monday, 17 January 2011

There’s Something About Fulci…

When I began to flesh out my thoughts and hastily scribbled notes on The Black Cat, I ended up spewing forth a tangent about why I find Lucio Fulci’s film work so utterly repellent, disturbing, depressing and yet morbidly fascinating. Below is said tangent, and the review of The Black Cat (tangent free, sort of) can be found here.

Of the countless tacky, schlocky, trashy, ultra-violent, reprehensible, disposable, exploitation-laden fare this writer has watched over the years - and the plethora of distasteful, disturbing, mind-numbingly deplorable and brain-botheringly wretched imagery I’ve witnessed as a result of watching such fare - one filmmaker and his work stands above all others when it comes to creating genuinely upsetting, avert-your-gaze-from-the-screen-in-disgust moments. Lucio Fulci is a man most fans of horror cinema will be familiar with. Heck, many of them will even own some of his work on DVD or something called VHS. My own experience of watching Fulci’s work is quite limited. I find his films to be crass, crude, disgusting, shoddy, depressing and at the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail reader; a wee bit sick. The more I think about this though, and the more I consider my reactions when watching his films, the closer I have come to the conclusion that Lucio Fulci is one of the most effective, provocative and interesting directors who ever worked in the horror genre. His work is rare in that, even though I find it unbelievably cheap and trashy, it still, somehow, wields the power to bother and upset me. It actually scuttles under my skin and squirms there for days, squelching all that eye-watering imagery I wish I’d never seen, into my mind’s eye when I least expect; making me cringe and relive those unsettling moments over again. That his work is able to disturb me so much – a hardened horror fanatic – speaks volumes.



Fulci is one of those directors that you can’t relay on. He isn’t safe. Anything can happen in his sickeningly nightmarish and progressively downbeat narratives - and it usually does: to petrified characters who exist solely to die horribly. His feeble characters have lost the ability to think reasonably, or, you know, just move the fuck out of the way of danger. The logic of nightmares comes into play throughout his work, rendering it frustrating, suspenseful and thoroughly perturbing. No matter what his characters do, or don’t do as the case usually is, they still die. Gruesomely. They stand rooted to the spot, petrified, or flail around weakly, usually while on fire, or cornered by the living dead, or with spiders/snails/maggots writhing all over them, in pathetic throes of agony, powerless to fight for their lives. Resistance is futile. These moments are the stuff of nightmares – and when the nightmare always works against you – and you experience that loss of control – you know it’s a powerful one. And yet, even as shoddily drawn as these characters are, their plight still reaches into my gut and writhes there, queasily, limply clawing at my insides. Fulci’s positively misanthropic attitude is one of the most prominent and uneasy characteristics of his horror films.
His work is undeniably powerful, disturbing, deflating and provocative. But it is also at times shoddy, incompetent and downright lazy. It’s within this juxtaposing dichotomy of ‘powerful and affecting’ and ‘crass and trashy’, his work lies. There’s just something about it that still has the power to really disturb, despite the sham artifice of it all.



When one thinks about the term ‘Horror’ and what it literally means – according to the definition in the Oxford Dictionary it is ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust’ – the prominent emotions it refers to centre around revulsion and disgust; gut reactions to visceral information. Horror dignitaries such as Boris Karloff and Val Lewton knew this all too well and actually went as far as referring to the films they made as ‘terror’ films, or ‘chillers’, because the desired reaction they sought to illicit from viewers was not to disgust or revolt, but to terrify. Stephen King discusses the difference between ‘horror’ (revulsion, disgust) and ‘terror’ (extreme fear) in his mammoth love letter/appreciation/meditation on the genre, 'Danse Macabre.' Therefore, it safe to say that Fulci’s brand of cinema is firmly rooted in ‘horror’; these are exactly the reactions he wishes to generate.

As stylish as some of his films can be, the violence is depicted unflinchingly, graphically, sadistically. Whether it’s images of a woman vomiting up her own guts; a man being flayed and whipped with chains; a woman having her eye gouged out, slowly, surely, on a large splinter of wood; people having their heads stoved in; vivisected dogs writhing in pain; a babysitter being beheaded in the basement of a house by the cemetery; a man having his face chewed up by large spiders; a woman being consumed alive by glisteningly moist snails (On her face! On her lips! Argh!); a group of people caught in a rain of maggots; a man having his head drilled open by, well, a drill; a young couple foaming at the mouths as they are asphyxiated in a locked room; a blind woman… What? Enough? Yeah, I think I’ll stop. I’m remembering more bizarre and mind-fuckingly gruesome imagery than I care to here (Google imaging 'Lucio' 'Fulci' was NOT pretty!). My point, and I did have one, is that once you see a Fulci film, you can’t un-see it. Those images will ingrain themselves in your pink-matter forever. In all their preposterous, alarming, silly, shocking, queasy, frustrating and disturbing glory. The sickening atmospheres, pregnant with decay and stinking uneasiness, that pervade Fulci’s movies are unforgettable and masterfully conveyed.



Such moments typify his work. They highlight and exemplify his exploration of what will make his audience look away, to feel repulsed. It is this William Burroughs-esque approach to his material – the refusal to censor the most horrific, sickeningly twisted stuff he can come up with - that makes his work and the horrid images contained therein, so memorable and effective. The images he creates and then allows his camera to gaze at in long, lingering shots are disgusting and primal, yet we cannot tear our eyes from them, we only feel compelled to look at them. Throughout his long and uneven career Fulci delved into our deepest, most basic fears, dredged them up, embalmed them in nightmarishly nihilistic logic, heaped on the decomposing, rotting flesh, all the while ripping open bodies and sloshing the insides across the screen of his uneven, yet genuinely disturbing cinema. And hey, this is why we watch horror movies, to be made to feel uneasy, wary and unsafe in our own skin.

Lucio Fulci, I fucking love/hate you.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Black Cat

1981
Dir. Lucio Fulci

It purrz. It stalkz. It killz!

The arrival of perky American photographer Jill Trevers (Mimsy Farmer) at a sleepy English village coincides with a series of bizarre, seemingly accidental deaths. She teams up with Scotland Yard detective Gorley (David Warbeck), in town to investigate the spate of odd occurrences, and local copper Sgt. Wilson (Al Cliver), and begins to suspect the involvement of the reclusive Professor Miles (Patrick Magee) in the deaths. Turns out Miles has been frequenting the local cemetery in a bid to record and communicate with the dead. He also appears to have a psychic link with his black cat. Could it be that he is channelling his psychic abilities and manipulating his cat to prowl after and murder those who have wronged him? No! Surely not!

‘Fraid so!

Opening with much prowling camera work, a gruesome car crash in which the driver is distracted by the eponymous moggy, crashes into a wall and is impaled on his own decimated windscreen before being engulfed by flames from the exploding car, Fulci’s ‘freely adapted’ take on Poe’s 'The Black Cat' begins with twisted promise. From here we’re treated to all manner of low level, skulking camera work, ideas involving necromancy, communing with the dead, hypnotism, mysterious (ludicrous!) deaths and more zooms into close-ups of fear-widened eyes than you can shake a blood-stained claw at. What soon becomes apparent is that all of this has actually fuck all to do with Poe’s original tale (aside from the foreseeable conclusion involving someone being walled up with the titular critter) and becomes more unclear as to what is going on as events progress.



What is lifted wholesale from Poe’s tale however, and is fairly typical of Fulci’s best work, is the unshakable atmosphere of dread and anxiety that feels as heavy as the fog enshrouding the village. A number of scenes are shot through with a macabre beauty thanks to moody cinematography courtesy of Sergio Salvati, particularly the scene in which Miles treks through the cemetery at night with his cat in a bag and the almost dream-like moment when Jill, out photographing local countryside, discovers an open crypt in a field and descends into its cobwebby, skeleton-strewn depths. The shots of the foggy village at night echo similar moments from the likes of City of the Living Dead, and Mario Bava’s Baron Blood, and are eerily beautiful. Fulci imbues proceedings with so much Gothic atmosphere, at times the film feels like it could have been produced by the likes of Hammer or Amicus; it certainly exhibits the same off-the-wall, oddness of those studios’ contemporary, Home Counties based Gothic chillers; though it is much more violent and sadistic than anything they ever produced.




While it is certainly more toned down than some of his other works, The Black Cat is not lacking its fair share of gruesome death sequences that boast all the gastro-churning viscera and frustration associated with the director’s depictions of violent demises. Amongst the unfortunates bumped of here, either by kitteh, or via other mysterious/silly/preposterous means, are a woman set on fire in her bed (she actually runs into the middle of a room engulfed in flames and starts flapping her pillow around, stupid bitch), a cavorting couple locked in a boathouse and left to suffocate to death (they don’t think to break the door down, though the moment she reaches out for his hand as they lay dying and foaming at the mouth, is strangely moving and despite the ludicrous nature of the scene, very unsettling, the stupid bitches), the town drunk impaled on farm equipment when he’s stalked through the town by the cat (which at one stage opens a door! While the drunk just stands there! Stupid bitch!), and the poor fool who crashes his car so gruesomely at the beginning of the film. As with most of Fulci’s death scenes, these are ridiculous and fairly overblown, yet still pack quite a punch. He seems to have such contempt for his characters; they are usually pathetic creatures who lack any sort of characterisation or depth. He just moves them, pawn-like, around his nonsensical narratives before bumping them off. This lot are no less weak and feeble than other Fulci characters; too petrified to move or fight for their lives. The resignation of their ghastly fates enhances the disturbing tone of the story and a smattering of close-ups of eyes widening in terror and disbelief as characters gawp at their advancing deaths, appear throughout. Infuriating and yet utterly unsettling.



Amidst uneven acting, weird accents, bad dubbing and even worse hairstyles, Patrick Magee does his best twitchy, eyebrow acting, while Mimsy Farmer, David Warbeck and Al Cliver look suitably bewildered as they attempt to piece together a fairly nonsensical mystery involving, well, I don’t know to be honest! It is never made clear why or how Miles controls the cat, or why or how it also has a bizarre hold over him. Proceedings are accompanied by a darkly mischievous score courtesy of Pino Donaggio and the ferocious cat attacks are well handled – all close ups of gnashing teeth, flashing claws, running blood and gashed flesh. Again, like much of Fulci’s best work, The Black Cat is doomful in tone, deathly serious, unevenly paced and at times utterly boring and incomprehensible. To his credit though, and incomprehensibility aside, Fulci manages to keep things reasonably taut and the whole thing is so atmospheric, beautifully filmed, creepy and entertaining (intentionally or otherwise), you might not care about luxuries such as coherence or plot.
Here kitteh, kitteh. LOLZ.

The Black Cat is available from Shameless Screen Entertainment. Check out the trailer here.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Outcast

Outcast, the debut feature from director Colm McCarthy (Spooks; The Tudors; Murphy’s Law), is an “intelligent, engaging, and unexpectedly creepy” (FearNet.com) contemporary supernatural horror film steeped in ancient Celtic occult, mythology and mysticism.

Boasting a strong cast of established British and Irish acting talent that includes James Nesbitt (Five Minutes Of Heaven; Murphy’s Law), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), James Cosmo (Sons Of Anarchy), Kate Dickie (Somers Town; Red Road) and Christine Tremarco (Waterloo Road), along with up-and-coming newcomers Niall Bruton and Hanna Stanbridge (Lip Service), the film has been described as “a monster movie, a murder mystery, and a Polanski-style tale of strange emotional ties that gradually unravel in several unpleasant ways” (FearNet.com) and as “a bold, ambitious first feature… a genuinely menacing piece of horror” (Twitch). According to Eye for Film it is “The best British Horror film since The Descent.”

On the run from a deadly pursuer and using an ancient form of magic to hide themselves, Irish travellers Mary (Dickie) and her teenage son, Fergal (Bruton), wind up living in a dingy flat on a run down council estate in the suburbs of Edinburgh. Shortly after arriving, Fergal makes friends with a pretty, feisty neighbour, a Scottish-Romany girl called Petronella (Stanbridge), but it is a relationship which the fiercely protective Mary is determined to prevent from developing – and for very good reason.



Meanwhile, Mary and Fergal’s hunter, Cathal (Nesbitt), a mysterious, terrifying and extremely dangerous man, is closing in. Using his own dark magic to trace his quarry, Cathal’s arrival in the Scottish capital coincides with a spate of brutal murders on the suburban estate. The killings appear to be the work of an inhuman beast and a connection to Cathal soon becomes apparent. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Cathal is responsible for the bloodshed and slaughter or if his mission is to prevent it.

A smart, stylish and original addition to a recent wave of quality British horror movies, Outcast proved to be one of the standout features for horror fans at London’s Film4 FrightFest in 2010.


Outcast (cert. 18) will be released on DVD (£12.99) by Momentum Pictures on 17th January 2011.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Thing From Another World

1951
Dir. Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks

A group of scientific researchers and military personnel discover an alien spacecraft frozen under the ice in the Arctic. Retrieving the alien pilot, they take it back to their outpost to conduct research. However when the block of ice it’s entombed in thaws, the creature goes berserk and sets off on a bloody rampage, killing anyone who crosses its path and feeding on their blood. The military personnel led by Captain Hendry decide enough is enough, and plot to destroy the creature before it destroys them.

Based on the short story 'Who Goes There?' by renowned sci-fi writer John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is one of the earliest, and most successful amalgamations of horror and sci-fi. A precursor to the likes of The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds and Alien, the film was produced during a time when the media was bombarded by reports of sightings of UFOs; a time that would become the Golden Age of sci-fi in Hollywood. It also came out early on in the Cold War Years, and at times it is impossible not to view the film subtextually as an allegory of America’s fear of communism. The paranoia rife throughout the short story, and indeed John Carpenter’s masterful, visceral and chilling remake, is sadly absent from this adaptation, however the film is not without its own moments of macabre genius.


An effective exercise in suspense and atmosphere, The Thing From Another World benefits from its isolated location, mounting tension and eerily effective atmosphere. Surprisingly, it also exhibits a rather cheeky sense of humour, too. When one considers it was co-directed and co-scripted by Howard Hawks however, this becomes less surprising. The camaraderie between Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men, and indeed the Captain and Dr. Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) fizzes with all the wit and sharp delivery one would rightly expect from a madcap Howard Hawks’ movie. When one of the men is left to keep watch over the block of ice encasing The Thing, he says he’s going to read “A nice, quiet horror story.” While Nikki is still a far cry from Ellen Ripley, she is a robust heroine and more than holds her own amidst all the macho talk and alien-monster attacks; keeping herself together enough to ensure the other characters are never without coffee. They do like their coffee in this movie! She even ties up Captain Hendry in a sexually charged scene that helps flesh out the characters and give them some history.


While Dr Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) manifests a few characteristics of the typical horror movie mad scientist, he argues his beliefs articulately and presents a few convincing arguments about scientific progress. A number of compelling debates between him and straight-talkin’ Captain Hendry ensue; the latter wanting to destroy the alien creature, while the former insists they can learn from it. These debates would be echoed later on in the likes of George Romero’s bleak and bloody ‘scientists vs. military vs. zombies’ meditation on the dangers of martial law, Day of the Dead. Carrington muses that the human race knows relatively little about the universe and that we could benefit from communicating and studying the creature. He doesn’t seem to mind risking the lives of others to preserve the life of the bloodthirsty creature. This disregard for human existence over scientific research would ripple throughout Ridley Scott’s Dan O’Bannon scripted Alien, another film that was heavily influenced by The Thing From Another World, right down to the everyman characters and isolated locale. Another moment that was pretty much pilfered by Scott and O’Bannon is the use of a tracking system to locate the alien creature. It begins to bleep, signalling 'The Thing' is near, as the group huddle together, turn off the light and await the inevitable – all the while the increasingly frantic beeps herald the approach of the monster – before the door bursts open and we see the striking silhouette. Dallas in the air duct, anyone?


Reporter Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer) wouldn’t seem out of place in the likes of His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, and he struggles to be heard when the military personnel refuse to allow him to report on the discovery of the spaceship. He sees it as a historical landmark that the public have a right to know about; the military believe such a story could cause widespread panic. These debates and altercations still wield a high degree of resonance today, especially when one considers how much ‘news’ the government suppress in the interests of ‘public security’, as evidenced in the recent WikiLeaks debacle. His protests of ‘freedom of the press’ are ignored by Captain Hendry who wants to keep a lid on things.

For the most part, directors Nyby and Hawks adopt the Val Lewton approach and are suggestive in what they reveal to the audience in terms of the eponymous ‘Thing’; a glimpse here, a silhouette there. The more we see of the alien creature, and the more we learn about it from research conducted and concluded by the plethora of boffins situated at the lonely outpost, the less effective it becomes. Particularly when various characters start to draw comparisons between it and a carrot. After the alien thaws out, a prolonged game of cat and mouse bulks up the running time, with the creature sinisterly eluding the group at every turn, while picking off a few stragglers.



An intellectual carrot? The mind boggles.”
The moody lighting and limited sets help to create a creepy atmosphere – those shots of the long corridors fading off into shadowy darkness could have been lifted right out of a Val Lewton production. Indeed, the Lewtonesque flourishes that are rife throughout the film more than make up for disappointing monster make-up. Still, a number of moments featuring special effects are still pretty effective today; particularly the little harvest of blood-gorged seed-pods (revealed to be more ‘Things’) as they pulse and quiver on their stalks; and the moment when 'The Thing' is set alight, only to rush into the cold night outside screaming and aflame, are memorably effective and provide some chilling imagery. More arresting images come with the depiction of the men spreading out over the ice above the submerged spaceship to trace its circumference, accompanied by appropriately ominous music, and the moment when a door suddenly bursts open to reveal the monster standing behind it.

An intelligent, witty and atmospheric movie that still retains its moody effectiveness today. "Keep watching the skies!"

Wine of the Month

This month's reviews are brought to you, once again, courtesy of Campo Viejo Rioja Crianza (which means barrel aged, apparently).

Campo Viejo is perhaps the largest producer of Rioja (named after the region where the grapes are grown in Spain) and is based on the outskirts of Logro no. Made up of Tempranillo - Spain's best known red wine grape, this pretty little red is aged in bottles for 6 months after its statutory year spent in barrels, before it is released to retailers and then appreciatively guzzled by the likes of your good self and I.

With a distinct spicy, oaky and really quite smooth palette, this wine is best enjoyed with something sophisticated, preferably an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price - the oaky depths also ensure it is best enjoyed while watching any number of Hammer's velvety, resplendently Gothic and alluring vampire flicks. If you must, you can also waft around your abode whilst quaffing this to the strains of Bach's Air On A G-String. But only if you must...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Trog

1970
Dir. Freddie Francis

After the discovery of a prehistoric troglodyte in a cave in primmest, quaintest England, Dr Brockton and her team of anthropologists attempt to communicate with it. The local townsfolk however, are not happy about a potentially dangerous Neanderthal residing so near to their quintessentially quaint English village. A botched plan to get rid of the creature results in it causing all sorts of havoc and mayhem in the local village. Can Dr Brockton and her immaculately shaped eyebrows put a stop to naughty Trog’s antics before civilisation crumbles? Can she heck!

Trog is really only significant and of any remote historical interest because it marked Joan Crawford’s last ever big-screen role. It was the second film she worked on ‘as a favour’ for her friend, filmmaker Herman Cohen. Hey, a girl’s gotta eat, right? Their other outing together was Berserk! Despite the absolute humiliation Crawford must have undergone making such drivel, she still throws herself into her role as the pert, unflappable and chic pant-suit wearing Dr Brockton with gusto. Aided no doubt by her trusty hip flask of 100% proof vodka.

Director Freddie Francis, who was already a reputable cinematographer and director of such horror titles as The Skull, Paranoiac, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and The Evil of Frankenstein, doesn’t fare much better, failing to inject any sort of life or sense of momentum into the laborious tale. His direction feels stunted and uninspired, and aside from the mildly creepy opening, in which several men fall foul of the titular beast as they explore an eerily lit cave in the English countryside (!), exhibits no flair or imagination whatsoever, and his obvious indifference to the material ensures events simply trundle along at a corpse’s pace.


The film begins intriguingly enough with the same uneasy, stiff English malaise that wafts throughout the likes of Amicus and Tigon films; that bizarre juxtaposition of contemporary setting with an oddly cold, slightly gothic atmosphere. After our jaunty spelunking team are set upon by a briefly glimpsed ‘thing’, events quickly move on as Dr Brocton arrives with her hypogun and tranquilises the cave-man-beast and takes him back to her clinic for research. Henceforth the film becomes a combination of inane scenes featuring Crawford ‘taming’ the troglodyte and an even more inane series of court hearings in which disgruntled villagers demand the creature is exterminated. After all, his presence runs the risk of bringing property prices down.

Hammy acting, over enthusiasm and hopelessly overwrought emoting soon become the order of the day, ensuring Trog falls firmly into the category of ‘so bad, it’s good.’ In what other film would you see a montage of Joan Crawford playing catch with a man in a pelt and cheap gorilla mask? Said montage also features Trog listening to music, playing with toys, being rewarded, and gently reprimanded when he gets a little rough (“Bad Trog!” scolds Joan Crawford, and we really believe she means it).

Get me my hypogun, quickly!
A delightful flashback to prehistoric times featuring stop motion dinosaurs is lifted directly from Warner Bros.’ The Animal World (1956). As wonderful as it is, it goes on for rather a lot of time and runs the risk of suggesting Mr Francis was attempting to pad out the film. Trog’s highlight, when we finally get to it, is the sight of the titular creature bounding through a quaint English village, pushing jolly greengrocers through plate-glass windows and hanging inquisitive butchers on their meat hooks. There’s even a scene where he frightens off a group of small children and proceeds to traverse their climbing frame. Bad Trog! The rabble of journalists, villagers and policemen who pursue Trog back to his cave appear to have been told by director Francis to simply ‘run around a bit’, such is the ineptness of the climactic scene.

Some vague attempts at moralising and the faintest whiff of social commentary are thrown into the mix. No, really! You see, because Dr Brockton is a woman, and a fairly feisty one at that, no one trusts her to be able to run the experiments and control Trog. So many women in the Sixties and Seventies faced similar hardships. Unfortunately we don’t get as far as seeing Crawford burn her bra, though there are a couple of courtroom scenes which would have provided the perfect platform for such a show of rebellion. And certainly would have livened things up a bit. The authorities only believe Trog shouldn’t be put down when several male scientists validate Brockton’s approach, which was regarded by many as mollycoddling an untameable man-beast.



Stiff dialogue between characters often strays into attempts at moralising, though it’s all so outdated the result is just laughable. A few mildly interesting debates about Darwinism and Creationism are tossed into the already wordy mix. It would appear scriptwriter Aben Kandel views ‘mother earth’ and nature as monstrous, and if I may put on my ‘over analytical’ hat for a moment; that sure was a vaginal looking cave Trog came out of. Trog is not created in God’s image, he is a product of evolution – a ‘concept’ those pesky god-fearing villagers don’t accept. He is of the earth; mother earth. These aspects of the script, and the maltreatment of Dr Brockton, because she is a woman, provide a rather interesting anti-feminist slant to proceedings. Is it because of a woman’s ‘meddling’ all this damage has been done? Is that what they’re saying? Is it? I must know!

There is some subversive humour in how the civilised society Trog finds himself in, though no fault of his own, treat him in such an uncivilised way. The conclusion? Trog is a sentential being who can actually be reasoned with, but not in the face of civilised society, who only want to destroy him. Oh the irony.

Best enjoyed with a stiff drink.