Thursday, 20 December 2012

Christmas Evil

Dir. Lewis Jackson

AKA You Better Watch Out

When he sees his mother fooling around with someone dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve, something snaps in little Harry Stadling’s head. Years later, when he’s all growed-up, Harry has developed an obsession with Christmas, and with being Santa Claus. Intent on delivering presents to those he deems ‘good’, Harry sets off into the night with toys stolen from the factory where he works, determined to bring joy to the hearts of children - whether they like it or not - and vengeance upon his bullying co-workers.

Part psycho-on-the-rampage narrative, part character study, Christmas Evil is many things; most of all surprising. To begin with, it really taps into the arguably inherent creepiness of the notion of a man who leaves presents for children by entering their house in the dead of night via their chimneys. Of course, for a modern audience, many of the moments in the film - such as when Harry (a brilliantly unhinged Brandon Maggart) spies on his neighbour’s children to see who’s behaving and who’s not - carry unsettling connotations and layer the film with an added perversity. As events unfurl though, it quickly becomes obvious that while its tone is wildly uneven, Christmas Evil has more than a few surprises up its white-furred red sleeve. It benefits from an off kilter humour, which veers between uncomfortably dark and unabashedly camp, and its attempts to subvert a number of Christmas movie clichés are spot on. In any other film, a man who dresses as Santa Claus to deliver stolen toys to children would most likely be a warm-hearted family affair. In Christmas Evil, there’s an almost ever-present creepiness to proceedings. Any sympathy the audience feels for Harry is down to Brandon Maggart’s performance. We see him quietly despairing in subdued, reflective moments, as well as committing sporadic acts of violence.

As mentioned, a number of moments wouldn’t be out of place in a feel-good family flick about Santa Claus. When he’s seen looking in through a window at a party, Harry’s invited in to dance with the guests and give gifts to the children; basking in the glow of the warm welcome he’s given. There’s also a strangely moving moment where he delivers toys to a children’s hospital and is later protected from a rampaging mob of parents by a group of children who believe he is Father Christmas. Later though, when Harry is pushed over the edge by the hypocrisy of his employers and events move into overt horror territory, a startling bloodbath erupts outside a church, and the star from atop a Christmas Tree becomes a means to a bloody end. The fact that Christmas can be a desperately sad and lonely time for many individuals is also rife throughout the narrative. The juxtaposition of Harry’s isolated existence with that of his brother’s family life is particularly effective, if somewhat under-explored. Director Jackson also takes barbed pot-shots at the scaremongering tactics of the media, evident in the scenes featuring TV broadcasts urging viewers to avoid anyone dressed as Santa - there’s even a line-up of Father Christmases.

As soon as we begin to think Harry is harmless enough (the worst he initially seems capable of is leaving a bag of coal at a badly behaved boy’s front door), he does something that’s just downright creepy (he’s seen spying on the boy from nearby bushes, and marking the homes of naughty children by leaving an imprint of his mud-smeared face and hands on the front door)… A few anachronistic moments add a touch of the fantastical to events, such as the scene where Harry is pursued through the night by local residents brandishing flaming torches - which echoes any number of old Universal Monster movies - and the genuinely bizarre twist ending that may very well make you spit out your mulled wine… Also unusual and unexpected is the way in which Harry actually fetishises Santa Claus. The moments where he’s putting his costume together while longingly gazing at himself in the mirror as he tries on an assortment of wigs, beards, clothes and padding are as humorous as they are worrying.

With its coal-black comedy and sudden moments of violence, Christmas Evil should surprise those willing to come to it with an open mind. It is often unexpectedly sweet - in its own demented way of course, and emerges as a deranged Christmas-themed oddity John Waters described as "the greatest Christmas movie ever made." That probably tells you all you need to know.

Christmas Evil is available now courtesy of Arrow Video. Special Features include: Widescreen transfer in the original ratio of the Director’s Cut - Optional English SDH subtitles - Audio commentary with director Lewis Jackson - Audio commentary with Lewis Jackson and director John Waters - Interviews with Lewis Jackson and star Brandon Maggart - Deleted scenes - Original story-board sequences - Rare audition tapes - Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by critic and author Kim Newman, John Waters and a new introduction by Lewis Jackson, illustrated with rare stills and images from the personal files of Lewis Jackson - Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

Region 2 PAL, RRP £15.99

Monday, 17 December 2012

All the Colours of the Dark

Dir. Sergio Martino

When she loses her unborn baby in a car accident, a troubled young woman becomes the target of a Satanic cult who may have been responsible for the death of her mother many years ago…

Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark is a psychedelic trip of a giallo filtered through the gothic aesthetics of Hammer Horror and the Satanic Panic-induced paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby. Reconceptualising the usual conventions of the giallo into a plot about a Satanic cult’s advances on a traumatised young woman, it falls into a miniscule group of films critic Kim Newman dubs ‘giallo-fantastico’; gialli which boast overtly supernatural aspects as well as typical troupes such as sexual perversion, blackmail and murder. Adding to the delirious nature of the plot are abstract dream sequences and myriad moments which cunningly blur the line between reality and deranged fantasy. Jane (Edwige Fenech) has increasing panic attacks, hallucinations and nightmares which are woven into the narrative with twisted aplomb. In place of the whodunit murder mystery plot typical of the giallo, everything hangs on the notion that she may or may not be losing her grip on reality.

While Martino has a penchant for exploitative fare loaded with sex and violence, his stylistic approach to Colours is undeniable; it is one of the most striking and unusual giallo titles ever to be produced. The way in which it toys with conventional plot structure is also rather radical for a film of its time. The audience is frequently jolted as the lines between reality and delusion are consistently rippled. The incorporation of the Satanic cult echoes the likes of Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls and Riccardo Freda’s The Wailing, while imagery more akin to gothic horrors of bygone years - animal sacrifice, blood offerings, orgies and Satanic rituals - really enhances the nightmarish atmosphere. Something of an ‘unreliable narrator’ due to her prior trauma and nervous disposition, Jane’s perception of reality is further warped as the blue-eyed killer from her dreams begins to invade her waking world too. Its these very elements that imbue All the Colours of the Dark with an atmosphere and tone quite distinct from its peers.

While it does contain a few plot holes – no giallo is seemingly complete without ‘em! – a number of arguably clichéd moments are given an alarming hot-wire courtesy of some frenzied editing, drawing us deeper into Jane’s panic. All the red herrings typical of the giallo abound, including Jane’s therapist, sister, boyfriend and her weird neighbour Mary (the ever-watchable Marina Malfatti) who invites her to join the cult. Throughout it all, the lovely Edwige Fenech exudes a sensual vulnerability and ensures we entrust our sympathy to her. She’s joined by Ivan Rassimov and George Hilton - about as synonymous with the giallo as she is - and all three are on fine form; even if the devilishly charming Rassimov is typically underused. Behind the camera is peopled by just as many stalwarts of the genre; including writer Ernesto Gastaldi and composer Bruno Nicolai, whose evocative score utilises sitar to disorientating effect, enhancing the atmosphere of exotic mysticism. Martino’s camera is rarely still and it lends even the most dialogue heavy scenes a real fluidity, while enhancing the clipped pace. He utilises widescreen to full effect, as his camera stalks and swirls around the London setting, exploiting the chilly autumnal environs, while filming the trendy apartments and vast mansions the story unfolds within, from all manner of skewed angles.

Perhaps because of his willingness to experiment and work in different genres, never allowing himself to be associated with any one kind of film, Martino doesn’t really receive the recognition that he should for his contributions to Italian genre cinema. His gialli straddle the line between epitomising the cycle/filone, and slyly subverting it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail are shiningly typical examples of the giallo (in a good way!), while Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key and Torso push the envelope; the former exuding a decadent gothic foreboding, while the latter - arguably a proto-slasher - strips plot to bare bones and edge-of-seat tension. Anyway. I digress. All the Colours of the Dark is a highly unconventional, heady giallo, and one which gradually emerges as a twisted remix of Rosemary’s Baby with copious Satanic Panic, sex, violence and a ground-breaking narrative structure.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Exquisite Terror 3

Exquisite Terror is an independently produced periodical, the intention of which is to take a more academic, analytical approach to the genre of horror. This is Exquisite Terror III. Isn't it beautiful? It's now available to pre-order.

Inside you'll find in-depth essays on The Exorcist, Jörg Buttgereit, a little something by myself on the presence of cats in horror, exclusive hand-drawn artwork and much, much more. All for only £2.45.

Exquisite Terror is a labour of love for all involved. Print isn't dead - support independent publishing. Click here to pre-order your copy today. 

For international sales, please contact prior to order.

"Exquisite Terror is something rather different… genre fans looking for interesting, sometimes provocative features on the fringe elements of the genre will find much to enjoy here." Strange Things Are Happening

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Paracinema Magazine: Issue 18

Mouldy mildew, mother of mouthmuck! Issue 18 of Paracinema Magazine is now available to pre-order!

Packed full of ridiculously good ‘letters that stay’ on all kinds of genre cinema, this issue includes the likes of When Single Shines the Triple Sun: Duality and Self Discovery in The Dark Crystal by Christine Makepeace, Marriage Bites: Lesbian Vampires and the Failure of Heterosexuality in Daughters of Darkness by Erin Wiegand, 3D’s Use and Potential in Today’s Cinematic Landscape by Caleb McCandless, Speed Racer: The Art of Absurdity by Patrick Smith and The Goriest Film You Never Saw by Jose Cruz.

Sound good? Duh, of course! Fancy picking up a copy? Erm, yes! Well then, head over to and pre-order one now. Support independent publishing, or, you know, face the wrath of the Skeksis! 

Happy Bloody Birthday, Behind the Couch

Cake by Emma/Photo by me.
Behind the Couch turns four years old today!

Thanks so much to everyone who has swung by. While this year has been slightly quieter than usual on the blogging front - mainly due to another Argento related project I’ve been working on – I still found time to dander down Elm Street with a movie marathon, swoon over Vincent Price, talk about Italian horror cinema with a pop star, and loiter in graveyards with prematurely buried maidens…

There were of course also the usual reviews of old favourites, new favourites, obscure gems and obscure trash, as well as chats with fairytale experts and authors of creepy poetry for children. Behind the Couch was also invited to join LOTT D and get nerdy over horror with its lovely members.

This year not only marked the 30th anniversary of Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, but also my (hopefully endearingly) bumbling foray into the world of podcasting; the results of which included helping to put together Paracinema’s first podcast (on the music of John Carpenter) and chats about Italian horror with Aaron (The Death Rattle) Duenas and Jon (Shocks to the System) Towlson, which you can listen to here and here.

Away from blogging and podcasting I continued to contribute to publications such as Paracinema and Exquisite Terror - which, if you’re not familiar with, are really worth checking out – as well as embarking on a Photo A Day For A Year project.

Thanks again for stopping by, reading my scribblings, leaving comments and inspiring conversations about all things horror. Here’s to another year!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Audiodrome #12: Vertigo

In keeping with Paracinema's Hitchcock Appreciation Month, this month's instalment of Audiodrome focuses on Bernard Herrmann's mesmerising score for Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock's classic tells of a retired acrophobic detective - played by Jimmy Stewart - investigating the strange activities of a friend's young wife. As he becomes completely bewitched by her, the film becomes a haunting rumination on the concept of obsession.

Of the score, Martin Scorsese commented: "Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession."

Head over to to read my review of Herrmann's masterful score and listen to an excerpt. While you're there, why not revel in all the appreciation of The Master and check out some of the reviews/articles on his work. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012


Dir. Johannes Roberts

A number of teachers and pupils staying late in a suburban school are menaced by murderous youths.

The problems faced by teachers in British schools have been fairly ubiquitous in mainstream media for a number of years now. As well as having to contend with an overwhelming abundance of bureaucracy and red tape on a daily basis, in increasingly extreme cases they’re also having to deal with violence from pupils and parents. A number of cases have been well publicised in British newspapers, as have instances involving desperate teachers snapping and turning on their students. To ensure I don’t digress into a rant, just go here to read about the trials and tribulations facing those in the teaching profession today.

F, along with a number of recent similarly themed films such as Eden Lake and Cherry Tree Lane, as well as the French home invasion shocker Ills, and the American slow-burner The Strangers, highlight how the media’s depiction of a wayward generation seemingly out of control (yes Daily Mail, I mean you) has become fertile ground for horror filmmakers exploiting a new national fear of today’s youth. And in what better location to weave a tale of ‘hoodie horror’ than the volatile environment of a thread-bare comprehensive school after dark.

Where F is most successful is in its depiction of the daily threats some teachers can face in their jobs. It begins with a stark and unglamorous depiction of life in the classroom and the obstacle-filled path they must navigate on a daily basis. When he gives one of his male pupils an F, middle-aged English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) is assaulted in his own classroom. The moment is unflinching and shocking, but it’s what follows that is most disturbing; the procedures he must undergo to return to his role in the school, the distinct lack of support he gets, and the patronising attitude of his colleagues. While all of this exhibits a smidgeon of dark humour, it also seems to ring true. It’s insinuated that the teacher provoked the attack by awarding his student an F - for fail - instead of the more politically correct RS - resubmission. He’s also informed he’s lucky the pupil’s parents aren’t suing him or the school.

Once the stage is set and the school empties for the night, leaving only a small group of people inside – including security guards, cleaners, several teachers, the headmistress and a couple of pupils on detention – the narrative assumes the role of a typical slasher film, with each thinly drawn character picked off in increasingly violent ways by a group of hooded delinquents. By relegating the killers to the shadows/background/periphery of the frame, Roberts endows them with real menace. Some of the stalking scenes are expertly handled and a queasy tension is generated in many places. The emotional impact could have been considerably heightened though had the script actually worked to flesh out the various characters. With the exception of David Schofield’s put-upon teacher, the other characters are relegated to ‘types’ and aren’t given much to do except plead for their lives when cornered by the murderous hoodies, who are presented as almost supernaturally agile and strong. While F is pretty suspenseful in places, its adherence to slasher conventions deprives it of the power it initially looked set to wield. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good old fashioned slasher movie narrative (I loves a good slasher), but here it eventually jars with the attempts at social realism.

The way the school becomes a place of genuine menace is also well handled. Long dark corridors, ill lit offices and classrooms provide a suitably creepy backdrop for the ensuing frantic events. Eerie atmospherics aside, the film’s saving grace is without a doubt David Schofield, who plays his part with grim conviction, as the teacher on a downward spiral into despair, alcoholism and disciplinary procedures. Estranged from his family, his nerves have clearly suffered as a result of his assault, and as the odds are increasingly stacked against him, tension mounts as proceedings race towards an unexpected ending…

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cry of the Banshee

Dir. Gordon Hessler

In his attempts to purge his town-land of witchcraft and heresy, a tyrannical ‘n’ puritanical magistrate picks the wrong coven to mess with. After he massacres her followers, local witch Oona invokes a curse upon the magistrate’s family and before long, they are gruesomely picked off by a ravenous beastie…

Cry of the Banshee is an intriguing, if not always entirely successful, hybrid of occult horror shenanigans and werewolf slasher flick. Hanging heavy with an eerie, doom-laden atmosphere, it revisits, and arguably rehashes, the story of Witchfinder General - made two years prior - in its tale of a merciless magistrate offing members of his community he believes to be guilty of witchcraft. It certainly revels in the same sadistic violence as its predecessor and boasts floggings, fiery brandings and buxom wenches burnt at the stake as witches. Opening with a young woman being forced to confess her dalliances in the occult as the pious Lord Edward Whitman (Vincent Price) smirks down on her from the bench in his court, Banshee musters a downbeat and grim tone. The onscreen murder of two gypsy children follows soon after as Whitman entertains his upper class peers in his lavish home, openly demonstrating his sadistic leanings and contempt for the underclass.

What begins as a basic tale of witch-hunts and persecution soon veers into a ‘cursed family/creaky supernatural revenge’ narrative, with some werewolf movie traits thrown in for good measure. When Whitman kills local witch Oona’s (Elisabeth Bergner) followers, she curses his family and summons a ‘sidhee’ - a vengeful spirit/faerie/werewolf - which possesses the body of the family’s loyal stable-boy and sets about murdering them.

It’s a rather muddled affair and feels quite disjointed, as though the scripts for several different films had been spliced together. The uneven pacing is haphazardly broken up by some moments of atmospheric creepiness in which various victims are stalked and slain by the creature; the presence of which is signalled by a distant wailing attributed to a banshee. The monster is wisely relegated to the shadows, as the little we do glimpse of it reveals its cheap and cheerful effects. The title of the film is a bit of a misnomer though, as the story doesn’t actually feature a banshee. What we do get is a curious blend of voodoo rituals and cod Irish mysticism that falls somewhere between Witchfinder General and Corman’s Poe films; it pillages Irish mythology with wild, inaccurate abandon and spuriously aligns itself with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. While an excerpt from his poem The Bells appears onscreen before the animated opening titles roll, it is not based on anything written by Poe.

The distinguished presence of Vincent Price makes it worthwhile viewing though. While nowhere near his best role, he still delivers a typically reliable performance as the evil judge - just imagine a much more theatrical rendition of Witchfinder General’s Matthew Hopkins and you’re halfway there - who gets his ghastly comeuppance in the twist ending; which is nicely realised. The script introduces way too many characters, far too early on - most of which just seem to get lost throughout the film - and this really bogs down the pace. Indeed, the only sympathetic characters are daughter Maureen (Hilary Heath), her prodigal brother, and her secret lover Roderick (Patrick Mower), who is also the unwitting werewolf/sidhee. The sumptuous production design of the magistrate’s abode cuts a striking juxtaposition with the poverty stricken village in which there lurks a muddy authenticity. Overall though, this lacks the grandeur of AIP’s earlier gothic (Poe inspired) horrors, and appears drab and bleak in comparison. One of the most exciting and unusual elements of the film is actually its opening credits. The cut-out animations were provided by none other than Terry Gilliam and they really pre-empt his work on Monty Python.

While nowhere near as accomplished or compelling as its AIP-produced Gothic horror peers, Banshee still unfurls as an entertaining slice of occult-tinged hokum, with Mr Price doing what he does best and some creepily staged stalking sequences livening up the plodding pace and dialogue-heavy scenes.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Terror Train

Dir. Roger Spottiswoode

A group of college kids responsible for a prank gone wrong several years prior, are menaced by a masked killer as they throw a New Year’s Eve costume party on-board a train.

The early Eighties is now regarded as the Golden Age of the American slasher film. From 1978 to about 1985, cinemas were saturated with gory flicks featuring masked psychos stalking nubile teenagers in lonely locations, gruesomely killing them off one by one. The popularity of these movies was ignited by John Carpenter’s Halloween, and their rigid template was confirmed by Friday the 13th. Each successive title layered on the violence, gore and nudity, neglecting to realise that what made Carpenter’s film so effective was its use of suspense and the anticipation of violence.

Terror Train was one of the first slashers to cash in on Halloween’s success. It epitomises the sub-genre, sticking to its conventions as tightly as Jamie Lee Curtis clinging to a knife for dear life. Everything associated with the sub-genre is present and correct. A masked killer avenging a past ‘misdeed’. Check. A group of teens in an isolated location. Check. Ineffective authority/adult figures. Check. Teens indulging in drugs/alcohol/premarital sex. Check. Characters splitting up to look for other characters/investigate strange noises. Check. Knives and other sharp (phallic) implements as murder weapons (killers in slashers prefer the thrill of the chase and the intimacy of killing victims up close and personal with a knife). Check. Jamie Lee Curtis as the chaste heroine, or to use slasher terminology; Final Girl. Check, check, check.

Despite its unwavering adherence to convention, Terror Train really benefits from taut direction by Spottiswoode, who wrings every drop of menace and suspense from the confined space of the singular location. With its long, dark, shadowy corridors, there’s nowhere for the imperilled teens to run and hide as they’re picked off one by one aboard the increasingly creepy, claustrophobic train. The isolation of the setting is perfectly invoked by shots of the train hurtling through the icy night, its shrill whistle sounding like a petrified scream. A symphonic score and moody cinematography lend it an old fashioned feel and enhance the spooky atmosphere, and there’s even a little social commentary evident in the various lamentations by certain characters on the demise of rail travel. As the ageing conductor Carne, Western movie veteran Ben Johnson brings a certain gravitas and dignity to his role. Equally sympathetic is Jamie Lee Curtis as Alana, a smart and resourceful teen who constantly despairs at the endless hijinks of her friends. Like most slashers, Terror Train’s depiction of the American frat/sorority lifestyle isn’t especially sympathetic.

While it may boast atmosphere and tension by the bucket load, Terror Train is also riddled with plot holes. Just how does the killer move around on the train when logic dictates he can only go backwards or forwards? Perhaps the various costumes - which in themselves are effectively creepy - enable him to move around undetected, or perhaps, as one immensely eerie shot indicates, he uses the exterior and the roof of the train. Terror Train also suffers a little in the pacing department. At times it’s rather uneven, and proceedings are especially bogged down during the scenes with a smarmy David Copperfield as a magician charged with entertaining the revellers. Once the bodies begin to pile up though, events gradually build to a satisfyingly suspenseful climax which pits Curtis against the sadistic, axe-wielding killer dressed as a gnarled old monk.

With its inspired setting, Terror Train just about manages to set itself apart from the glut of early Eighties slasher movies, but only just. It’s still a hugely enjoyable thrill-ride though, particularly for fans of the subgenre; and personally speaking, it's one of my favourite slashers. All aboard! 

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Friday Night Frights Podcast

Friday Night Frights is the Official Starburst Magazine Horror Podcast. It’s brought to you each week by Jon Towlson of Shocks to the System: Subversive Horror Films, who recently invited me to join him for a chat about Dario Argento.

Our conversation covers Argento’s entire career, from his beginnings as a film critic and screenwriter, and his international success with the likes of Deep Red and Suspiria, through his recent critical decline and current offerings such as Giallo and the forthcoming Dracula 3D; we cover the lot!

Head over to Starburst’s online lair to listen to/download the podcast. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Interview With Éric Falardeau, Director Of Thanatomorphose

In his existentialist tome The Sickness Unto Death, Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stated that the human concept of death marks ‘the end’, whereas in Christian faith it is merely a necessary step towards eternal life, and therefore nothing to fear. Kierkegaard goes on to suggest that when an individual is ‘in despair’ – something which is born out of denying God or God’s plan - he loses himself and risks spiritual death, which the philosopher describes as ‘Sickness unto Death.’

It’s these very themes that are addressed in Éric Falardeau’s debut feature film, the uncompromising and haunting Thanatomorphose; the title of which comes from the French term meaning the ‘visible signs of an organism’s decomposition caused by death.’ The bleak tale of a young woman who awakens one day to find her body has begun to decay, Thanatomorphose not only features staggeringly visceral imagery, but also unfurls as a deeply personal and thoughtful film. Throughout its duration Falardeau poses provocative questions about the human condition, spirituality and death.

The film debuted at this year’s Sitges Film Festival and has already won Best Film at the Spanish Festival de Cine de Terror de Molins de Rei. Since hearing about it several years ago, I’ve been anticipating seeing it. It was worth the wait. Writer/director Éric Falardeau was kind enough to have a chat with me about making Thanatomorphose, its unsettling themes and what inspires him as a filmmaker.

Where did the idea come from for Thanatomorphose?

A few years ago, me and my ex-girlfriend were talking and making jokes about rotting from the inside. At the same time I was working over my Master's thesis about body fluids in gore and porn films. Little did we know that our small talk would merge with my studies. I then started putting ideas on paper and working on the script on an irregular basis - between my thesis, my day job and another film. The script became more and more personal, like a reflection of my inner self and my readings at that time of my life.

Given the low budget and the dark subject matter, how difficult was it to film?

The fact that it is a low budget independently produced film is a blessing. It enabled me to do what I wanted and make it as tough as it is. I didn’t have to compromise over what I wanted to show, or the slow-burn type of editing. For sure, having more money would have made the job of, say, the special effects crew easier, but it would have meant toning down the film. The hardest part when making this kind of film is always how much of yourself you put in it, and how much darkness in yourself you have to get out to get the proper tone and feeling. That requires a lot of energy.

With Thanatomorphose you display quite a singular vision as a filmmaker. What are your primary cinematic influences?

There are many. Of course, there is Cronenberg and Büttgereit. Cronenberg is one of those rare artists who truly elevated a film genre and even got a word made out of his name. I think that speaks of the quality and originality of his work. I truly admire his films and my favourite is definitely Crash. His films define what body and psychological horror are. I’m also fond of existential horror, and in that field Jörg Büttgereit nailed it with only four features. I greatly admire his work. I also love the films of Ozu Yasujiro, Joseph Losey and Dario Argento. Amongst the contemporary directors I’m a fan of Kim Ki-Duk, Michael Haneke, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn and Wes Anderson. There are also films that I watch over and over again like Phantom of the Paradise, Angel Heart, Hellraiser, The Servant...

Aside from films, what else inspires you as an artist and informs your work?

Books and music take a lot of space in my life. I drew a lot of inspiration from both of these arts. Books are always my first inspiration when I write a film. Most of the time it is a single sentence that sparks my imagination. For example, my short film Coming Home was directly inspired by Shakespeare’s MacBeth, and Thanatomorphose’s three act structure is taken from the ‘despair theory’ exposed by Søren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death.

A hint of the distressing imagery in Thanatomorphose
Given the morose tone, how did you go about casting the film?

It was easy. I’d seen the lead actress Kayden Rose in a few short films before and I was sure that she was the perfect person for our main character. I just sent her the script and talked to her about what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. She agreed. For the other roles, we simply went trough a regular casting process.

It’s a very bleak film. The main character seems to accept her state of decomposition and doesn’t really attempt to seek help. I thought perhaps her rotting state was a physical manifestation of her inward hopelessness. What are your thoughts on this?

For me, great horror films always use the body as an excuse to talk about something else, be it our fears or our human condition. I also believe in cinema as an image and sound media: it must make sense by showing things visually with the help of sounds. The body is a great visual tool that shows mental conditions or emotions. Thanatomorphose is about how a girl reacts to a physical state, but that physical state means something. The film’s main emphasis is not on the why, but the how: how she will react to what is happening to her. It is a film about the body as an object, a commodity. How do we treat our body and disconnect ourselves of it in the process. And how do we reconnect to ourselves through our body. It is an existential body-horror film.

Éric Falardeau on the set of Thanatomorphose
What kind of research did you do into human decomposition?

I’ve read a lot of books, but my main sources were the books by French sociologist, anthropologist, ethnologist, and scholar Louis-Vincent Thomas, who was instrumental in founding thanatology as a science and field of studies. His books are great because they don’t only focus on the states of the decomposition process, but also on the psychological and anthropological ones. Of course, we also relied upon medical pictures of the process. It helped us in designing the rotting look that we slightly adapted for film purposes. Some of the effects throughout the film are deeply disturbing!

How were these created? 

It is all the work of our maverick special effects artists David Scherer and Rémy Couture. They did an amazing job on a shoestring budget. Like the film, which is divided in three acts, we designed three styles of make up. They had to create a lot of prosthetics and bodily fluids. Rémy took care of the liquids - blood, pus, etc. - and some prosthetics, while David took care of all the decomposition effects and on-set work. Watch these guys! David Scherer is the new big name in the field. He is the next Savini or De Rossi. Finally, our foley artist Paul Hébert did an incredible job creating the realistic and disgusting sounds that go with the effects.

The music also enhances the sombre atmosphere. What attracted you to the work of funerary composer Rohan Kriwaczek?

I was already looking for mournful and highly atmospheric music before finding Rohan’s records. I stumbled over the Guild of Funerary Violins’ music a few weeks before we started principal photography. Funerary Violin music is hauntingly evocative, powerful, melancholic and solemn. Heavily connected to Romantic music, it offers wonderfully delicate high and plaintif chords. It fits perfectly within the rhythm, aesthetic and topic of the film. The Guild and Rohan’s performance is simply mesmerizing, full of sound and fury. Also, it fits perfectly with the film’s themes: death, sadness, bereavement. What is funny is that when we were doing the sound editing, we placed Rohan’s music and it simply fitted with the images. We almost never had to edit the music to fit the picture edit, it’s as if the music was meant to be there. Kind of spooky.

You’ve made quite a few short films, and experimented with animation. How different a process do you find making live action films compared with animation?

I’ve always directed live action short films except for my last one which is a stop-motion animation entitled Crépuscule. Mainly, there are two differences between animation and live action: shooting time and acting. It is almost cliché to say that stop motion is a time consuming art. As for the acting, it is strange because you have three different acting ‘persons’: the puppetteers, the puppets, and the voice actors. But on a film with as many special effects as Thanatomorphose it is almost the same. You can watch all my short films, except Crépuscule, over at my Vimeo channel.

What draws you to horror?

Horror cinema is one of the most visual genres. It is all about bodies, textures, organic matters, and its main subject is ourselves. What interests me is the human condition, and this genre allows me to explore it in the most extreme ways.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

American Mary

Dirs. Jen and Sylvia Soska

Following on from their low-budget but exuberant debut Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the Soska sisters’ sophomore offering is a darkly sexy and wholly unsettling tale of an impoverished medical student who finds herself lured into the bizarre underground world of illegal surgery and extreme body modification. Unfurling as an intriguing character study, American Mary is a much more refined and mature film than Dead Hooker, though it still retains the jet-black humour and off-the-wall tone the filmmakers are quickly becoming known for. Part body horror, part rape-revenge, part black-comedy, the various sub-genres the filmmakers utilise and dabble in to tell their tale are swirled into one highly distinctive and provocative whole.

From the opening moments depicting Mary (Katherine Isabelle, Ginger Snaps) practising her surgical skills on raw chicken flesh, to the various characters who later enlist her talents to alter their physical appearance, the emphasis in American Mary is on flesh: the fallibility and fabulousness of flesh. The line is increasingly blurred between the extremes people go to by modifying their flesh to express themselves, and the violent damage inflicted upon the flesh by others. We follow Mary as she descends into this underworld, becoming increasingly disaffected and desensitised by the sometimes alarming situations she finds herself in. Interestingly, it’s actually the ‘establishment’ that succeeds in corrupting Mary and instigating her tragic trajectory. Accepting an invitation to a swanky party with the surgeons she studies under, Mary is drugged and raped in a harrowing scene that refuses respite. This is what unhinges her, pushing her to the point of no return and providing the catalyst for her transformation. When she drops out of school she doesn’t stop wielding a scalpel; first and foremost she extracts brutal vengeance upon the human monsters who defiled her, ensuring their inward corruption is outwardly visable…

Mary is complexly drawn and constantly evolving as a character. From her initial naivety and quiet determination to succeed at medical school, to her emergence as a vengeful femme fatale, she refuses to allow herself to be relegated to the status of victim, despite the horrendous things that occur to her and eventually push her into grisly action. Katherine Isabelle, staunchly proving her capability and showcasing herself as one of the most underrated actresses around, portrays Mary as a strong and thoughtful young woman who not only makes difficult decisions, but lives with the consequences and struggles to reconcile her ever-shifting morality. She never plays Mary as a psychopath, despite the sometimes horrendous acts she carries out.

This non-judgemental approach extends to the underground world of body modification in which Mary finds herself wallowing. Beautifully realised and, far from the exploitative, murky place it could have been, it’s populated mainly by idiosyncratic and sympathetic miscreants. Chief amongst these individuals is Beatress (Tristan Risk), a young woman who has had her face surgically enhanced to resemble her idol Betty Boop, and her friend Ruby Realgirl, who has extreme surgery to realise her dream of becoming a living Barbie doll. Despite all the grotesque freakery on display with such characters stretching their skin beyond recognition and going to lengths to drastically change their outward appearance, they are never exploited or made fun of; they’re fleshed out, sympathetic and imbued with pathos.

While the story weavers a little after the half-way mark, it isn’t long before the slow-burning tension finally ignites as we head to a devastating denouement. In terms of narrative cohesion and linear storytelling, the Soskas have really honed their craft since Dead Hooker; though that film’s haphazard pacing and meandering narrative actually enhanced its anarchic tone. American Mary is much more refined, and boasts artful storytelling. As a result the emotional impact is unavoidable. The look of the film is also beautifully realised, from Mary’s softly lit apartment, to the dark and seedy nightclubs she begins to frequent as she garners a reputation for herself and earns the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’; it’s a tangible world that feels real, and, strangely enough, at times inviting. Despite all the horror, gore and twisted scenarios, the strongest element of American Mary is its overwhelming sense of tragedy, and while there are several unflinchingly uncomfortable moments - including the brutal rape scene - it never feels overly gratuitous.

Funny, sexy, horrifying and tragic, this is a dark carnival of a film, brimming with edgy humour, daring pathos and quiet power.

Friday, 2 November 2012


Dir. Federico Zampaglione

With his sophomore film Shadow, Federico Zampaglione – Italy’s answer to Rob Zombie – made a concerted bid to breathe new life into Italian horror cinema. While Shadow may have been more influenced by the current slew of ultra-violent ‘torture-porn’ films than Italy’s own distinct brand of bygone horror, it still emerged as an atmospheric and taut exercise in grim tension, with Zampaglione infusing it with enough of his own sensibilities to keep it surprisingly original. With follow up Tulpa, the director has attempted to create a contemporary giallo that is so faithful to its lineage it arguably borders on parody. Based on a story by Dardano Sacchetti, who wrote/co-wrote the likes of Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), Bay of Blood (1971), Schock (1981), The New York Ripper (1982) and A Blade in the Dark (1983) amongst many others, Tulpa is the lurid tale of Lisa Boeri (Claudia Gerini), a respectable businesswoman who secretly frequents a private sex club in search of euphoric pleasure. When her various lovers are brutally murdered, she attempts to evade public scandal and is plunged into an increasingly nightmarish web of paranoia, bloodshed and shadowy psychosis. Evading attempts on her own life by the mysterious killer, she eventually turns detective to stop the sadistic marauder.

With Tulpa, Zampaglione has directed not only a stylish throwback to the sub-genre, but a contemporary giallo in its own right; complete with elaborate style, twisted whodunit narrative, fetishised violence and lashings of titillating nudity. It perfectly captures the tone and feel of vintage gialli, while throwing in obvious nods to masters such as Argento, Bava, Martino and Fulci for today’s more knowing audiences. A completely straight-faced celebration of the giallo, Tulpa manages to evoke the sub-genre’s idiosyncratic tone a bit too well, resulting in convoluted plotting, questionable dialogue, bad dubbing and ropey performances. Switching back and forth between English and Italian, some of the dialogue provides unintentional humour, as does its unnatural delivery. Giallo aficionados shouldn’t have a problem with this, but it will most likely alienate wider audiences. However I would argue that illogical scripting and ludicrous dialogue are as much a part of traditional gialli as overwhelming style and sadistic violence, and here they actually enhance Tulpa’s bid to recreate the gialli of yesteryear. Remember, the primary focus of the subgenre was not logic and narrative cohesion, but stylish execution and deliberately shocking violence. That Tulpa also has the courage of its convictions and takes itself seriously, adds to its appeal. Had it been released in the Seventies – the heyday of the giallo – Tulpa would now be regarded as something of a cult favourite.

As with most gialli, Tulpa’s highlights are its extended and elaborate murder sequences. Opening with one of the most vicious and brutal scenes in recent memory, a kinky sex game is interrupted by a killer clad in long dark raincoat, fedora and black leather gloves, who uses a blade to slash one of the participants to death as the other looks on helplessly while trussed up on the bed. Another stand out scene begins with a prolonged and creepy stalking sequence and culminates with a woman being tied to a carousel and having her face slashed by pertinently placed barbed wire every time she goes around. Alone in her impossibly vast and shadowy home, another hapless member of the club is doused in boiling water and viciously stabbed to death. At times Tulpa resembles a combination of Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and All the Colours of the Dark, with its heady delirium, secret societies, sexual deviancy and potentially unreliable narrator. In Tibetan mysticism, ‘Tulpa’ is a manifestation of mental energy; a thought that has taken physical form. With its pseudo-philosophical musings and talk of mystical transcendentalism, the film hints that otherworldly, supernatural occurrences are afoot. 

Amidst the outrageous deaths, Lisa attempts to keep her late night dalliances in the club secret while she vaguely attempts to track down the killer; navigating expository dialogue and trippy sex scenes presided over by the enigmatic club owner (Nuot Arquint). In classic giallo tradition, the story is awash with red-herrings; everyone has a motive and an ambiguous enough personality to ensure suspicion falls on them at least once. In the grand tradition of the giallo though, the revelation isn't everything; it's the journey towards it that takes centre stage. As evidenced in his prior film, Zampaglione has an eye for striking visuals, and Tulpa positively exudes a hallucinatory atmosphere rife with vivid lighting and unusual shot compositions. Mention must also be made of the score, courtesy of Zampaglione, his brother Francesco, and Andrea Moscianese, which eerily throbs and pulsates throughout proceedings, echoing the likes of Goblin and some of Ennio Morricone’s more discordant pieces. Although, is it just me or is there something inherently pervy about sax solos? Quite a few scenes are accompanied by such music which seems to underpin the sleazy shenanigans and city-by-night connotations.

With its moody styling, audacious plot twists, sadistic violence, slack-jawed dialogue and delirious atmosphere, Tulpa should appeal to lovers of the giallo. As a straight-up modernised giallo, it possesses much to admire as Zampaglione recreates nostalgia-hewn memories of black gloved killers, glinting switchblades and imperilled sex-pots. Like some of the best gialli from the likes of Argento, Fulci and Martino, it doesn’t always abide by conventional narrative logic, and is as prone to wander into both esoteric and sublimely ridiculous territory in equal measure as its predecessors. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012


Dir. Éric Falardeau

A young woman awakens one day to find her flesh beginning to rot…

The title of this unsettling low-budget film comes from the French word meaning the ‘visible signs of an organism’s decomposition caused by death.’ Moodily shot and with very little dialogue, Falardeau’s feature debut is an unsettling rumination on the fragility of the flesh, and an uncompromising exploration of the dark realm where sex and death interlock. With it’s rather Cronenbergian concept of someone essentially trapped inside their own body as it rots away before their eyes, Thanatomorphose boasts an unflinching ‘body horror’ narrative that doesn’t shy away from depicting all manner of disturbing imagery and worrying ideas.

The plot, so to speak, follows a nameless young woman’s downward spiral into madness, as her already seemingly fragile mental state begins to unwind as her body decomposes. Kayden Rose delivers a suitably detached performance that enhances her character’s dissociative outlook. She appears quite disconnected from those around her, and indeed from herself. It is tempting to read her state of decomposition as a physical manifestation of her inner hopelessness and self-loathing, but Falardeau provides no easy answers; he opts to let the tale unravel objectively. The young woman seems to have hit rock bottom and given up on life. She finds pleasure in nothing; not least her loveless relationship with an abusive man. What is perhaps most disturbing is how, much like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, she just seems to accept what is happening to her; she even documents it, photographing the progress of decay and preserving the pieces that fall off her in little jars.

Taking time to establish the main character and her quiet, mundane life, the story gradually introduces subtle signs that something very wrong is happening to her; she helplessly observes bruising on her body and panics when some hair falls out. Eventually, as her condition worsens, bodily fluids abound as her insides begin to seep out and various appendages drop off; with Falardeau filming everything in unflinching close-up. It’s quite tough going, as the stagnant pacing, relentlessly gruesome effects and the character’s quiet desperation all weigh heavy on the narrative. Then again this is a film about a young woman slowly rotting to death in her own home, so it’s difficult to imagine it unfolding in any other way. There are distinct echoes of titles such as Driller Killer, Repulsion and The Yellow Wallpaper with their similarly haunting depictions of a lone protagonist slowly drifting into madness in the isolation of a singular setting. The young woman’s surroundings don’t take long to mirror her mental and physical disintegration; notably the yonic shaped patch of damp which ominously spreads across the ceiling above her bed.

Thanatomorphose is also a stiflingly claustrophobic film; everything occurs in a small apartment. The intimacy, while not initially intrusive, soon becomes overwhelming. At the beginning of the film we see the woman and her boyfriend having sex, walking around completely naked and going to the toilet; as the story unfurls however, these mundane routines give way to much more disturbing scenes of graphic intimacy, not least the moment when the young woman masturbates furiously while blood gushes from her body. The abstract score, courtesy of Rohan Kriwaczek – the foremost authority on the history and practice of Funerary Violin music - incorporates mournful and sombre violin pieces with more intense electronic soundscapes, heightening tension and enhancing the grim atmosphere.

With its contemplative mood, deathly serious tone, crawling pace and unpleasant visuals, Thanatomorphose will not appeal to everyone; however those who stick with it might find themselves moved by its dark and despairing portrait of humanity, and the inherent weakness, fallibility and limitations of our mortal flesh. When the end comes it is truly harrowing, and the culmination of the young woman’s decomposition is realised through impressive stop-motion photography, with some deeply disturbing imagery that wouldn’t seem out of place in Hellraiser. Indeed, with its concepts of sex and death, eroticism and gore, Thanatomorphose recalls some of Clive Barker’s best work and is a truly original debut from a director well worth keeping an eye on.