Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The House

2012
Dir. Monthon Arayangkoon

While Thai horror cinema doesn’t quite wield the legacy or prolific output as its other Asian counterparts, such as Korean or Japanese horror (or J-Horror as it has been dubbed), a recent emergence of fright flicks from the burgeoning film industry has included a number of memorable titles such as Shutter, 4bia, Meat Grinder, Sick Nurses and The Victim – not forgetting of course the moody The Eye films. The House is the latest edition to this strikingly eclectic fold and it boasts the same unique tone and idiosyncrasies as its creepy peers. The serpentine story coils around investigative journalist Shalinee (Inthira Chaloenpura) who is commissioned to make a documentary about several doctors who brutally murdered their wives. As her snooping continues, she uncovers some odd connections and similarities between the killings, including the sinister fact that throughout the years, all the murderous doctors had at one time or another lived in the same house near the hospital. Despite warnings from spooked (and spooky) neighbours, Shalinee enters the house in search of further clues. What she finds there plunges her and her husband into a twisted nightmare full of bitterly vengeful ghosts and giant shadow demons. 

Somewhat typical of Asian horror, and especially echoing the likes of Ju-on (a cursed house) and Shutter (ghostly beings captured on camera), The House is full of long, slow takes and pans, with various nightmarish figures briefly glimpsed in the background, including the by now obligatory ghost-girl with long black hair covering her face. However, as the story unravels, director Arayangkoon begins to find his feet and ensures that the film moves into unexpected directions and consistently throws up twists and surprises to keep the viewer intrigued. His camera is rarely still as it floats wraith-like throughout the ominous titular dwelling place, down long hallways and around the heads of characters. For the most part things are subtle, though there are a number of perfectly timed jolts that rip through the eerie stillness, usually involving the protagonist slowly turning around to discover a disfigured ghost-girl all up in her grill. Amalgamating various traits from sub-genres such as haunted house films, possession films, ghost stories and, curiously enough when Shalinee films her tentative exploration of the house, found-footage/camcorder horror, The House at times feels strangely familiar. That is of course until things veer down an unexpected route and toy with our expectations.



Certain scenes also appear to echo the likes of Silent Hill, when the protagonist suddenly finds herself in what appears to be a whole other space in time, witnessing, or remembering, bloody encounters. There may be a few too many ‘familiar’ aspects drawn from Asian horror cinema for some, but overall The House is a genuinely gripping and often surprising yarn with several effective twists in its tail. It also boasts a peculiar nightmare logic throughout, particularly in the moments when Shalinee attempts to escape from the house and burn it down, with everything working against her, including the petrol she doses everything with mysteriously drying up, and a terrifying encounter on a deserted bridge at night. As Shalinee, Inthira Chaloenpura aptly carries the film and is rather convincing as a determined and focused career woman who finds herself descending into madness and waking nightmares.

At the heart of the story is a malign force that weasels its way into marriages and relationships, altering perspectives and turning partners and lovers against each other, with one emerging as a maniacal killer. Interestingly, the wooden pillar that stands in the centre of the house, ensuring it doesn’t collapse around its inhabitants, is the source of the evil presence. It’s tempting to read this as a subversion or corruption of the home, or more specifically, the family unit in Thai culture, as it houses the evil force intent on destroying the sanctuary and solidarity of family and tearing down loving relationships.

The House is a twisted and twisting tale with some striking imagery, an irresistible central mystery and more than a few ominously atmospheric moments and jumps that should please those who like their Asian horror with a little complexity and eventually doused in the red stuff.

The House (18) is available on DVD from 4th June courtesy of MVM.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Embodiment of Evil

2008
Dir. José Mojica Marins

At the end of This Night I Shall Possess Your Corpse, the second Coffin Joe film, Joe (Mojica Marins) was cornered in a spooky swamp by torch-bearing villagers who’d had enough of his violent shenanigans. Denouncing God while laughing in their faces, Joe sank into the swamp and apparently drowned. Didn't he? Not so! As a flashback explains, he was pulled up out of the water again and imprisoned for his heinous crimes. 40 years later and he is eventually released from jail, and greeted on the outside by his faithful manservant Bruno. How does Joe celebrate his freedom? Why, he goes in search of a woman worthy of bearing his child of course! Cue much torture, bloodshed, nightmarish visions and a few familiar faces from the past, as José Mojica Marins finally closes the long-awaited last chapter of his Coffin Joe Trilogy.

Embodiment perfectly concludes At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night in terms of its contextual linearity. There is a real sense of continuity. Just like This Night repeated and extended upon the plot from At Midnight, so too does Embodiment, with the story centring on Joe torturing various women to see who will make a suitable mate with whom he can conceive a child. There’s even another trippy and brutal excursion into a parched and desolate Hell, and those furious philosophical ejaculations from ol’ Joe his admirers love so much. Flashbacks to the earlier films pepper the narrative, and Joe is still plagued by the grotesque ghosts of his former victims. The scene depicting his ascent from the murky waters he sank into at the end of This Night is shot in black and white and features lookalike actor Raymond Castile as the young Joe. It seamlessly merges with the other flashbacks and effortlessly boasts the same spooky atmosphere as the prior films. Certain characters from the other instalments also turn up, such as hunchbacked manservant Bruno (Rui Rezende) and Joe’s arch nemesis, corrupt cop Coronel Pontes (Jece Valadão) who teams up with the son of one of Joe’s victims from the first film.



The same gothic trimmings that enshrouded the previous films also pervade Embodiment, and are all the more striking because of the modern urban setting. As Joe is released from prison, he and Bruno make their way through the streets of São Paulo, providing the film with some of its most unusual and arresting shots. The sight of Joe, now a much older man, with his top hat, long cloak and demonically long fingernails is fantastically anachronistic within the context of modern day Brazil. Then again, Joe was always at odds with the world around him, regardless of time or place. Interestingly, Marins allows his camera to linger along the grimy sidewalks and back alleys, capturing images of a city on the verge of economic collapse. Street kids, drug dealers, junkies, homeless people and general squalor and degradation are the sights that greet Joe when he leaves prison. He seems affected by these sights, and Marins works in some sly social-commentary on the state of Brazil’s street culture and corrupt police force, who don’t think twice about shooting street kids in an attempt to ‘clean up’ the city and protect its inhabitants and economy.




The idea of this diabolical yet bedevilled old man attempting to find his way in the world again evokes some sympathy. Still haunted by his past and ranting and raving about free will and self-determination, Joe finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his victims from the prior films (or maybe just his guilt?). The appearance of the cadaverous ghouls is fittingly striking – all black eyes and pallid, grey skin – and one confrontation in particular is most unsettling. Wandering through a darkened park, Joe comes face to face with his first wife Levita, now a decaying torso involuntarily birthing tarantulas from her exposed abdomen. Other rotting spectres who mean Joe harm include Teresinha from At Midnight, who before taking her own life after he raped her, cursed him and vowed to return from the dead to take his soul to Hell, and Lara, the woman from This Night who conceived his child but died along with it during the birth. Further adding to Joe’s complexity as an anti-hero, is the scene in which he saves the life of a young street urchin by cutting up the corrupt cop pursuing him. This moment seems to remind Joe that he needs to spawn a few of his own sprogs if he is to continue his bloodline and gain some semblance of immortality. And its business as usual then as Joe is introduced to a group of kinkily attired people who are so enamoured with the undertaker’s dark humanism they round up a group of women for him to select a suitable mate from.




It’s interesting to see how Marins depicts the violence in this film. While the other two instalments of the trilogy were pretty sadistic and gruesome for their time, they weren’t competing with the current slew of extreme ‘torture-porn’ flicks. Embodiment, with its state of the art effects and make up, bigger budget and vastly superior production values, and use of real people involved with genuine body-modification, boasts some savagely extreme imagery that would make Pinhead weep. While it certainly gives other contemporary horror a run for its money in the gore department, it still exhibits that unique oddball, deranged tone of its predecessors. There are flayings, bloody lashings, fiery brandings and piercings, someone sown up in a pig’s carcass (!) and an utterly vile, Bret Easton Ellis-inspired death involving a rat, molten cheese and forcibly splayed legs… Some of these scenes have an anarchic free-for-all feel that echo, and trump those depicted in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears. Indeed, an interesting parallel can be drawn with Dario Argento who also took many years to wrap up a revered trilogy. Other striking imagery comes courtesy of the showdown which takes place in an empty fairground in the middle of the woods, complete with creepy carousel and House of Horrors.

Embodiment of Evil is as off the wall and utterly unbalanced as horror cinema gets, and its also testament to Marins’ ecstatic and unique brand of filmmaking. He emerges as a filmmaker who still cuts out on his own and still wields the power to shock, provoke, confound and titillate. That Embodiment ends on such a gleeful, weirdly upbeat note – no doubt bringing a touch of the warm and fuzzies to fans of Coffin Joe (including myself), is bizarre proof that this unique character, this human monster with murderous flaws and a bad ‘tude, can still remain so utterly compelling 40 years after he last strut across our screens. Go Joe!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse

1967
Dir. José Mojica Marins

After the success of Coffin Joe’s first outing, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, his creator José Mojica Marins (who also portrays him onscreen) decided to resurrect him for further misadventures. This Night picks up straight after the events of At Midnight, as it is revealed that Joe didn’t actually die in the crypt, though he was severely wounded and traumatised by his ordeal. Soon after he is released from hospital and acquitted of his crimes due to lack of evidence, and he’s up to his old tricks again, kidnapping a slew of beautiful women and subjecting them to horrific tortures in order to find a woman worthy of bearing his child.

Made four years after At Midnight, what is immediately obvious about This Night is how much Mojica Marins has honed his skills as a filmmaker. Technically speaking, this film is more accomplished than its predecessor, the script is tighter, the pace more fluid and it is much more visually appealing - moody lighting and black and white photography render This Night a striking, gothic-drenched trip. In terms of onscreen sadism and the depiction of Coffin Joe’s gradual psychological deterioration, this one really ups the ante, too. What is also surprising is the further characterisation afforded Joe. Here, his sinister charm and mischievous charisma arguably pre-empt that of one Freddy Kreuger. This isn’t to say that Joe spouts dreadful puns as he offs his victims, but he certainly emerges to form a fully fleshed out anti-hero we sorta kinda love to hate. Joe is a monster who is all too human. Further adding complex flesh to his bones is the scene in which he saves a young child from being knocked down. Joe’s touching affinity with youngsters is short lived though as he soon quips that they grow up to be idiots.



As soon as he is released from custody, he and his hunchbacked manservant Bruno (!) set about abducting women from the town. Soon after he explains his diabolical scheme to the scantily clad ladies, Joe unleashes a horde of large tarantulas into the rather tastefully decorated boudoir where his sleeping beauties soundly slumber. The elegantly lensed shots of sleeping maidens, resplendent in diaphanous nightgowns no less, juxtaposed with the unnerving sight of large spiders creeping into the room lends proceedings a sort of morbid giddiness. There is something quite juvenile, comical even, about the notion of a self-righteous little man with fiendish fingernails and a bad attitude who terrorises captive lovelies with big spiders. This is a well handled scene though, as the mounting terror of the women and the sheer abundance of arachnids becomes quite unsettling. This set piece eventually bleeds into a much darker moment as Joe and his chosen bride copulate to the screaming of the unsuccessful Mrs Coffin candidates, who are chucked into a pit with writhing snakes. Nice. Another vilely sadistic and uncomfortable scene unfolds as Joe ridicules his bride’s brother, strapping him under a large boulder and urging him to pray for help. The scene ends with the man’s head crushed under the rock…

When Joe realises that one of his victims was actually pregnant – and also the woman who placed the titular curse upon him – he staggers into a spiral of guilt and depression that not only signals his downfall – and a few of his characteristic theological/philosophical rants - but also beckons him into one of the most memorable moments of This Night. Awakening from a restless, nightmare-ridden sleep, our hapless undertaker finds a tall, dark, faceless figure standing at the end of his bed which proceeds to drag him from his house into a graveyard and then down into the bowels of Hell itself. As soon as we enter Hell, the film becomes awash with lurid colour and the disturbing imagery depicting the tormented souls of the damned simply seeps from the screen. Typical of Marins’ warped and unconventional vision though, this is a Hell of ice and day-glo desolation. The production design, while obviously the result of a low budget, is still insidiously effective as we catch glimpses of mutilated body parts and still-live people trapped and protruding out from frost-white walls and ceilings. When Joe meets the devil himself, he appears in Joe’s image and mocks his atheism.

The final scenes set in a studio-bound swamp and mist enshrouded forest, are draped with a heavy gothic feel. The use of religious symbolism in these moments recalls the expressionistic leanings of earlier Universal horror films. Also echoing classic Universal horror flicks is the revelation of Joe’s mad-scientist laboratory complete with hunchback assistant! While no less raw than the first outing, the climax of This Night packs a much stronger punch as Joe is pursued into the swamps by angry villagers and slowly drowns as he adamantly denounces God.  

This Night was described by the Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror as “an endless orgy of gore and torture, which produces the occasional surreal scene but more often leaves an impression of a very sick man’s home movies.”


Coffin Joe may be a crazed madman, but his creator José Mojica Marins is surely a unique, visionary director and one who has exhibited a singular vision quite unlike anything else that exists in the realms of horror cinema. He is a vastly underrated master of the macabre and This Night is surely one of the most bizarre, wonderfully deranged and unconventional horror films you’re ever likely to see.

Monday, 21 May 2012

At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul

1964
Dir. José Mojica Marins

Zé do Caixão (that’s Coffin Joe to you and me) is something of a cult figure both in his native Brazil, and in the wider horror community. The creation of filmmaker José Mojica Marins, who also portrays him onscreen, Coffin Joe has appeared in various TV anthologies, comics and sequels, as well as countless appearances in other films by the director. A nightmarishly striking figure - sporting long black cloak, top hat and grotesquely long fingernails - Joe first appeared in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which was also the first Brazilian horror film.

A curious and carnivalesque oddity of a film, At Midnight follows the increasingly crazed exploits of undertaker Joe, as he attempts to find a woman worthy of bearing him a child - and thus helping him obtain immortality by extending his bloodline. Addressing concepts such as faith, free will, social responsibility and politics, Marins’ film is an existential horror that unfolds with impish glee. While fairly tame by today’s standards, it still makes quite a shocking impact with its antihero’s atheistic rants and sociopathic tendencies. Brazil is a deeply devout Catholic country and when audiences gathered to watch At Midnight they basically encountered a formidable bogeyman mocking and ridiculing the very foundations of their beliefs and their faith.

Joe believes his atheism and free will elevates him above his superstitious neighbours. His fiery monologues touch on the same notions apparent in Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘superman’, as Joe does not follow common morality, preferring to forge his own and rise above ‘herd mentality.’ His actions are so shocking because he doesn’t adhere to any sort of moral code. He terrorises the other villagers who are portrayed as feeble and weak, and he rejects spirituality, choosing to maintain a rational mind. Coldly rational. His wife is unable to bear children, so he sees nothing wrong with killing her and setting out to find a woman worthy of having his children. He tortures people to test their emotional strength. 



While he carries out atrocious acts, such as murdering his wife and best friend, and then raping his dead friend’s fiancée, Joe is never portrayed as completely evil; oftentimes he just appears to be morbidly mischievous (eating meat on Palm Sunday). His grotesque activities are fuelled by his need to father a child and Marins’ performance does manage to evoke some sympathy for the crazed, strangely charismatic ghoul. While the film is essentially a series of strung-together scenes in which Joe hypothesises religion and free will, while bumping off friends and villagers in his quest to find the ultimate mate, it is Marins’ electric charisma that holds everything together and makes At Midnight such compelling viewing.

There are a number of incredibly atmospheric moments throughout, but none more so than the scene in which Joe begins to realise that the curse placed on him by one of his victims is actually about to be fulfilled. Wandering through a gloomy forest he notices various foretold events occurring before his eyes, marking his imminent demise. No music accompanies this scene, only the low moan of a desolate wind through trees. Tension builds with every realisation that the curse is in effect and a meeting with the devil is nigh. The home-made effects of the catacomb-set finale, as Joe is confronted by the animated corpses of his victims, are effectively realised and further add to the film’s off-kilter tone.



While Joe denounces God and the existence of the supernatural, and it appears that his demise is brought about by the gypsy curse placed on him, Marins maintains a certain degree of ambiguity throughout proceedings. As Joe’s histrionics mount, it becomes clear that all these horrifying visions could just be figments of his already deranged mind.

José Mojica Marins is a fascinating filmmaker, particularly when one takes into consideration the subject matter of his films, the often rigid regimes of censorship imposed upon them and the low budgets with which they were realised. Usually working with amateur actors and production teams, his work has the feel of something untamed and genuinely off the wall. At Midnight is a highly subversive, provocative and idiosyncratic film worth savouring on a dark and stormy night.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Audiodrome#8: Fire Walk With Me

It’s that time of the month again to head over to Paracinema.net and check out the latest instalment of Audiodrome. This month I take a look at Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative and moody score for Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s dark and disturbing prequel to his cult TV show, Twin Peaks.

The film follows the harrowing last seven days in the life of high school home coming queen Laura Palmer, as she descends into a nightmarish abyss of drugs, prostitution and abuse. Fire Walk With Me marked a drastic shift in tone from the beloved series: gone are the cherry pies and damn fine coffees, and all that remains is an unsettling tale of domestic abuse, incest and filicide. Badalamenti’s jazz-based score perfectly immerses us in this strange world, which while dangerous and dark, is not without its moments of abstract beauty.

While you’re over at Paracinema’s online lair, why not pick up the latest issue? It’s really rather good and all the articles address the theme of revenge in genre cinema…

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Shadow

2009
Dir. Federico Zampaglione

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Italy was responsible for producing some of the most unique, striking and disturbing horror films in the history of the genre. Italian cinema was even bigger than its US counterpart in terms of exports. Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Riccardo Freda, Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato are just a few of the filmmakers responsible for creating some of the most lurid, bizarre, searingly brutal and unforgettable imagery to ever bleed across the silver screen. Italians were churning out all sorts of genre gold dust; from spaghetti westerns, stylishly violent giallo films, blistering detective movies, to comedies, erotic dramas and explosive action flicks. This Golden Age of Italian cinema began to fade during the Eighties however, when the government introduced funding legislation that meant films of ‘cultural and national’ interest were given priority over films that were regarded as entertainment. Nowadays television rules the roost in Italy and Italian cinema, let alone Italian horror, is all but dead. Even films that do manage to get funding, rarely gain distribution outside of Italy. It is a truly lamentable situation when one thinks of the swathe of genre movies the country was responsible for in the past. It has been too long a time since anyone but Dario Argento has flown the flag for Italo-horror, and even he has trouble finding funding for his film projects.

Federico Zampaglione’s Shadow should hopefully change all that now. It marks the long overdue and very welcome return of Italian horror. Given the lavish history of Italian horror cinema, and the fact that Zampaglione - often compared to Rob Zombie because of his adoration of horror and his involvement in rock music - was raised on Argento, Martino and Fulci; you would be forgiven for having high expectations. With that in mind, Shadow doesn’t disappoint. The director draws on his nation’s rich history of horror while also exhibiting enough of his own vision to ensure his sophomore film feels fresh and exciting.



While there are distinct echoes of classic Italian horror throughout Shadow, the film’s primary influences would appear to stem from the recent ‘torture-porn’ sub-genre. Beginning with a Deliverance-like narrative, in which a young couple are menaced in the woods by redneck local types, Shadow soon lurches down a much more outré trail; it’s contemporaries are the likes of recent French shockers such as The Pack and Frontière(s) - it even stars the latter’s Karina Testa. As soon as the characters get lost in the woods and realise that the trigger-happy locals are the least of their worries, and that something much more sinister lurks within the woods, Shadow’s second act really begins to exude its torture-porn influences. Images of people strapped to surgical tables while various sharp implements are lovingly fondled in front of their eyes ensue. However the emphasis in Zampaglione’s film is not on gruesome effects and splashy violence, but rather the threat of violence, its bloody aftermath and the primitive cruelty that man is capable of. While there isn’t anything too extreme in terms of onscreen violence, one particular moment – which also provides a wonderful nod to that classic Italian horror staple, eye-violation – is shockingly effective.



Momentary flourishes of Bavaesque Gothicism – including misty forests and candle-lit explorations of gloomy, cobweb-hewn corridors - lend Shadow a strangely vintage feel. The antagonist, a cadaverous sub-human creature known only as ‘Mortis’ (Nuot Arquint), also seems to have crept out of the dankest depths of a Gothic nightmare. The Golden Age of Italian horror is channelled in the scene where he skulks around his underground domain, fingering bizarre relics and trinkets before picking up a toad and greedily licking its back, beginning to hallucinate. The warped visuals, candy-coloured lighting and skewed camera work, coupled with the rising tension as he trembles with rage and appears to get off on the pain he’s about to inflict upon his captives, all swirl together in loving tribute to the likes of Bava, Argento and Soavi. The score, courtesy of Zampaglione, is also suitably moody and mesmerising and it immediately recalls the work of Goblin with its relentless and driving prog-rhythms.

Somewhat typical of Italian horror, the plot is very thin and the emphasis is placed firmly on creating an increasingly nightmarish atmosphere sopping with dread and the threat of violence. Characters are never fully developed and are essentially only there to further on the hellish proceedings. That said, while the story is a simple and unfussy one, the way in which Zampaglione spins it out is highly impressive. Layering on the ominous tone and simmering tension early on, he steadily ratchets up the suspense until it’s unbearable.

Rather like other examples of Italian horror, the pay off just can’t match the build-up, and Shadow’s twist denouement just falls short of sating expectations generated by the gruelling lead up to it. Even so, it’s still a highly atmospheric and suspenseful trip. I for one hope that it can help usher in a resurgence of Italian horror akin to the recent wave of extreme shockers coming out of France. For fans of Euro-horror, Zampaglione is a filmmaker to keep an eye out for; aside from the dark allure of Shadow, his forthcoming film Tulpa looks set to please fans of the giallo. As is his promise to breathe new life into the giallo with it…

Monday, 7 May 2012

RIP James Isaac

James Isaac directing Kane Hodder on Jason X
Director James Isaac, best known for Jason X, werewolf flick Skinwalkers and his special effects work with David Cronenberg, has passed away at the age of 52 after battling a rare blood cancer.

Isaac began his career in 1983 as a ‘creature technician’ on Return of the Jedi and Gremlins before moving on to work with Cronenberg on the likes of The Fly, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. His feature directorial debut came in 1983 with The Horror Show aka House III.

In 2002 Isaac directed the tenth instalment of the Friday the 13th series. Jason X's winning sense of humour and genuine adoration of Jason (and his fans) gave the series a much needed jolt of originality and devilish playfulness. Isaac’s work on the vastly underrated film is often overlooked due to its problematic shoot caused by interference from producers, constant re-writes and a delayed release. Isaac was always very candid about his feelings on the film, and was very generous in communicating with fans of the franchise on message forums. When interviewed by Peter M. Bracke for his tome Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th, Isaac stated: “I would have done Jason X so differently now. The final product is not what I had originally imagined, or what we pitched originally to New Line. And that happens all the time. I learned with Jason X that you always, always fight for what you believe. And more than just doing it right, and on time, and on budget, you’re fighting for your vision. And when you get everyone on the same page, only then can they make your vision even better. Way better. But you have to guide them. And that’s when you really come up with something cool.”

Todd Farmer, the screenwriter of Jason X, announced the sad news of Isaac’s death on Facebook and Twitter saying, “Jim Isaac directed my FIRST movie! RIP you beautiful man…” and described the director as “a wonderful man, husband and father.”

RIP James Isaac (June 5, 1960 - May 6, 2012)

Friday, 4 May 2012

Interview with Ryan Haysom, Director of Neo-Giallo Short, 'Yellow'

Italian giallo films are renowned for their brutal violence, dazzling style and convoluted ‘whodunit’ narratives. The combination of grind-house exploitation, art house aesthetics and bizarre fetishisation of violence, render the giallo a highly distinctive and unnerving cycle of films. The giallo is exclusively Italian and was initially popularized by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The films began to lose their commercial appeal in the late Seventies, but recent films such as Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes and Federico Zampaglione’s forthcoming Tulpa, to name but a few, highlight the overwhelming influence of the giallo on a new slew of international filmmakers. These ‘neo-gialli’ have sparked a resurgence of interest in the film cycle that looks set to continue with a new short film by Berlin-based filmmaker Ryan Haysom. Yellow is currently in production and looks set to draw heavily from the gialli of yesteryear, with its story of a man and his increasing obsession with tracking down a vicious serial killer who has been sadistically murdering women across the city.

Hailing from Cornwall, England, Haysom began making low budget shorts as a teenager when his father gave him a VHS camera. After studying digital film at university, Haysom then relocated to London and worked as an art department assistant, cutting his teeth on music videos and short films. I caught up with him recently to discuss his latest project, the influence of the giallo and the morbid allure of black leather gloved killers, glinting switchblades and bloody ultra-violence…

What formed the genesis of your latest project, Yellow? 

Ryan Haysom: I love horror and that’s what made me want to make films in the first place, and I have always been really interested in Italian horror, specifically the films of Dario Argento, so it has always been in the back of my mind to make a film in that style. Yellow happened quite organically. Jon, who is Yellow's cinematographer, and I shot some test video for a giallo film over a year ago, and we had so much fun that we started thinking seriously about making a neo giallo short film, and from then it’s just been gathering momentum.



What was the writing process for you? 

My main note was to always propel the film using imagery. We are really steering away from dialogue filling in the gaps, so the film is very visual and Jon has done an amazing job so far. Above my desk I had the words “The giallo Michael Mann never directed” and that is the core of our Yellow influences.

Is Yellow a straight giallo (complete with whodunit plot), or like a number of recent films - such as Amer and Julia’s Eyes – are you just employing various visual tropes and narrative techniques typical of the genre to tell a story? 

I loved Amer which was a really beautiful film, and Yellow is a little like it in our visual style, but it is very important for me that we are not just making a retro styled giallo film. I want to take all of the things that really interested me from the genre, like black leather gloved killers, switchblades, extreme violence, but leave behind all of the retro parts that make them feel dated. Yellow is definitely a neo giallo in everyway. Importantly, the Italian giallo films are not our only influences; I am also a big fan of American genre cinema, especially the films of John Carpenter, William Lustig and Michael Mann, which have been big inspirations, especially Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which for me is the definitive detective vs. serial killer film. It has a great aesthetic of being an 80’s film but not feeling really dated; it has a very specific atmosphere which we want for Yellow.

Ryan Haysom gets all 'Argento' on the set of Yellow


From what I’ve seen of the film so far, it has a very unique look – a beautiful echo of Italian gialli. How have you achieved this look? Were you guys trying to evoke memories of any particular past giallo titles? 

Before we started shooting the film, my DOP Jon Britt and myself sat down and talked about all of the films that we really loved, and why we loved them, but we tried to make it a thing that we didn’t watch a lot of the old giallo films before we shot Yellow. We really wanted to avoid feeling confined by following a long list of rules, we have a strong giallo influence flowing through the film but we definitely want to put our own fingerprints on it.

The setting really evokes memories of non-Italy based giallo films such as Who Saw Her Die and Short Night of Glass Dolls. How important was it for you that filming take place in Berlin? 

The Berlin location suits the film perfectly, it is a really interesting city of old and new architecture, and it is the main character in the film, it has a very special atmosphere which is hard to explain. It’s also a geek-boy thrill for me as one of my favorite horror films, Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento’s Demons, was shot in Berlin and we came across a lot of the locations for that when we were location hunting for Yellow.

What is it that you love so much about Italian gialli? Any particular favourite giallo titles, writers or directors you admire? What is it about them that appeal to you so much? 

Giallo films had an incredible amount of creativity and ingenuity in them, they were this beautiful, haunting art-horror genre which I think the horror scene really needs back. The first Italian horror film I saw was Dario Argento’s Suspiria when I was fifteen, and since then I have been hooked by everything. The great thing about a lot the gialli and Italian horror from the 60’s to the late 80’s is even the bad films had more creativity and love in their craft than most of the horror films that are made nowadays. I am a big Dario Argento fan so I could talk about him for a while, Tenebrae, Opera, and Deep Red still send shivers up my spine, but a few of the gialli that I really love outside of Argento are Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die, and Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude For Your Killer. It’s just something about these films that I just love so much. 


Gloriously gruesome make-up effects by Anna Zwanziger
With Italian cinema (arguably) all but dead, how much hope do you have that we will ever see a full resurgence of these types of films coming out of Europe? Or will it just be a case of their influence being felt in the work of a new generation of filmmakers such as yourself? 

I think the films will live on in the inspiration of new film makers like myself, but I’m not sad that these films aren’t being made anymore like they once were, I actually like that there is this insane moment in Italian cinema where the most outlandishly sexy and violent films were being made in huge amounts. For me, it’s a very special moment in time.

What can audiences expect from Yellow? 

What people can expect is a very ambitious short film for the budget we have. We’re attempting and achieving pretty crazy shots for the mount of money we have to spend, but sometimes that’s how you get the best results. You can’t put a price on the blood, sweat, and tears that are molding the film. I am really happy with what we have done so far, and in a couple of weeks we finish shooting the film and then the real adventure in the edit begins!

To keep up to date with Haysom's short film, check out the official website

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Interview with Sean Keller, Author of Underneath the Bed & Other Nightmares

"Fade away, Sweet dreams,
I'll be listening for your screams." - Sleep Tight
As a fan of horror, you most likely have fond memories of being terrified by creepy stories as a child. You maybe weren’t so fond of feeling those sensations at the time, but looking back, it forms a sort of rites of passage many horror fans now reflect upon quite nostalgically. Children are drawn to scary stories; they possess the same morbid curiosity about such dark subject matter as adult fans of horror. Indeed, many children’s stories and fairytales unravel as dark morality tales in much the same way as horror films do. Fairytales, ghost stories and horror films work on a subconscious level to teach us about the dangers inherent in our world. They are saturated with cautionary morality; warning and preparing young listeners and readers for the trials and tribulations they will face, and ultimately strive to overcome.

By hearing about life-threatening problems and potential threats, such as those featured in fairytales and scary stories, children are given vital information that operates on a subconscious level, educating them about the struggles of life, and how these struggles are actually an intrinsic part of our existence. Like horror films they allow us to work out complicated, anxiety-ridden thoughts and emotions in the safety of our own home. They form a rites of passage for younger audiences.

Sean Keller, the co-writer of Dario Argento’s 2009 thriller Giallo, has recently written a collection of scary poems for children, which tap into the same collective childhood worries we had as children; and indeed generations before us did, too. Amongst the dark delights that lurk within the pages of Underneath the Bed & Other Nightmares - alongside morbidly beautiful illustrations by Daniel Thollin - are poems about a little boy who wakes up dead, a child-eating tree, creepy clowns, an adolescent werewolf, a thirsty little vampire, and a certain dreadful something that lurks beneath childrens' beds. I caught up with Sean to discuss his latest project and talk about what attracts young people to actively seek out the sensation of being scared.

"No one wants to see their boy the day he wakes up dead" - The Boy Who Woke Up Dead
What inspired you to write a book of spooky children’s poems? 

Sean Keller: I’m a horror writer and a father. Having two boys and raising them to love ghosts and monsters and all things creepy, like I did as a child, has allowed me the profound joy of re-discovering this world through their eyes. It inspired me to look back to what first drew me to the macabre and try to write poems that would have appealed to the boy I used to be. There are no fears like childhood fears. They are delicious and rich and unperturbed by logic. And even though they may be buried away under layers of adulthood and forgotten, they never really die. If you dig deep enough, you’ll hit them. So I dug.

Were there any particular stories or writers you turned to for inspiration throughout this project? 

Halloween is my obsession, my inspiration, the reason I do what I do. Sharing this celebration of fear and death with my boys and trying to capture the emotion of the season was what compelled me to dive into kids poems. Halloween is also when I build the annual Hesby Oaks Haunted House at my son’s school. The kids all know me as the one who makes things “too scary” for them. They howl and scream and some don’t make it through, some barely get through the front door before bursting into tears (children’s shrieks feed my soul), but the ones who make it through are thrilled and excited and want to do it ten times. When I started writing these poems I knew I would end up reading them in classrooms to these same kids. In the classroom, as in the haunted house, some of the kids think the poems are a little too scary and some beg for more and even others have been inspired to write their own poems. Reading the creepy poems to children is an annual tradition at the school. There are some parents and teachers who aren’t fond of the poems and that’s fine with me. I didn’t write a word of it for them.

"It beckoned me into the depths, and helpless, I obeyed
As water poured into my lungs and all my flesh decayed." - The Pond
Were there any real events or stories you recalled or researched? 

The poem “The Pond” was inspired by the real pond behind my grandmother’s house in Blackwater, Missouri. It was just as described in the poem and in recalling childhood fear, the image and memory jumped up from lost memory to terrorize me and fill me with a profound sense of dread all over again, which was wonderful.

What kind of stuff did you enjoy reading when you were younger? Was there any title or writer in particular that formed your introduction to horror literature? Any particular favourites? 

I was into “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and Mad Magazine and Shel Silverstein when I found a couple of my Uncle’s old EC Comics in a basement closet. The dripping-oozing horror in those panels set my brain on fire. When my older sister came home from school with an orange and black, bat-winged covered copy of “The Complete Works of E.A. Poe” I just had to know what lay inside. I searched for the shortest things and read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” when I was ten years old. I was hooked. The language was so authoritarian, which I loved, because I was at the age where I wanted my gothic sensibilities served by something more serious than The Munsters re-runs. I dove into the book and soon sought out others. Lovecraft followed as did Stephen King.

"She swore she heard the Banshee's wail earlier that day,
And, white with fear, she held me tight and then she passed away." - The Banshee's Wail
Some of the material in your volume of poetry is really quite dark. How difficult was it deciding what was too morbid and where to draw a line? 

I wrote these poems to tempt and tease and corrupt children with the love of horror. I don’t know where the line is or should be and I don’t give it much thought. I only know the material must be dark and sardonic to be tempting and fun. It must be familiar in order to lure you into unknown territories, which is where the real fear lies. And it must be one step past what your mother would want you to read in order to be something that really captures a child’s imagination.

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim once said, in relation to scary stories and fairytales, that “As children we need monsters to instruct us in the ways of the world.” How do you see spooky stories and poetry, and indeed horror as a whole, forming a sort of rites of passage for younger audiences? 

Horror stories are a boot camp for the psyche. Experiencing safe, cathartic horror, specifically the metaphoric importance of facing monsters, prepares the young mind for the horrors the real world will surely show them. Rites of passage are, by definition, both traumatic and necessary for growth into adulthood. Horror stories help transition children into adulthood.

"There's something underneath the bed,
I swear I heard it breathing. Inside my troubled mind
All sorts of nasty things are seething." - Underneath the Bed
Why do you think kids are often drawn to spooky tales and ghost stories? 

When you first realize you are going to die, it is a powerful moment in a child’s life. It always comes “too early” and creates an existential angst that is best relieved through catharsis. Children seek out imitations of death in order to convince themselves that their fear is unfounded and all is okay. Parents hate this. They don’t want to talk about the death of their child in any way, so they tell kids “Don’t think about that kind of stuff. It’s bad.” Parents also hate rites of passage because they are by definition painful and a parent is supposed to protect a child from pain. This protective nature and a child’s need to assert independence from a parent often results in children not just enjoying horror, but developing a special attraction to it. There is no faster way to instill a desire than making an object or idea taboo.

If you could leave your young readers with one impression or thought, what would it be? 

Don’t be afraid to be afraid. It really is a good time …and you’re going to die anyway, so let’s have some fun first.