Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Winter Horror

Horror films regularly feature unfortunate characters in extreme circumstances and situations. Whether they be battling poltergeists or demonic possessions in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, or evading hulking brutes with big kitchen knives in a remote backwoods cabin; settings usually play an important part of what makes horror stories compelling and relatable.

What if you add harsh winter weather to the mix though? Wintry, snowbound horror films can often be chilling in more ways than one. A typical narrative of man versus, well, whatever monster he's facing, soon takes on the added aspect of man versus the elements; which can often be just as threatening - and much more relatable. Or perhaps the elements themselves are the threat? Films such as Frozen, The Shining, The Thing and 30 Days of Night – to name but a few – feature characters in already horrific situations which become somewhat exacerbated by freezing temperatures and blinding snow-storms. Isolation, hypothermia, cabin-fever and death's freezing clutch can surely ensue.

The diabolically delectable Christine and Marie of Fascination with Fear are currently focusing on winter based horror, and invited me along for the (sleigh) ride. For the next two weeks, we’ll be highlighting a few of the best (and worst) frost-nibbled chillers from the icy silver screen of horror. Join us, won’t you? We can promise a lot of blood on snow...

Thursday, 24 January 2013

An Interview with the Makers of Neo-Giallo, Yellow

A few months back I interviewed director Ryan Haysom about his short neo-giallo Yellow, the influence of by-gone Italian horror and the morbid allure of black leather gloved killers, glinting switchblades and bloody ultra-violence. With the film now screening at various festivals around the world, and going down a storm with critics and audiences alike, I thought it was as good a time as any to catch up with Mr Haysom and the makers of Yellow. Joining us in donning black leather gloves and talking about the film are cinematographer/writer Jon Britt and producer Catherine Morawitz.

How did you come up with the story for Yellow?

HAYSOM: I am a big Italian horror fan and I’ve always wanted to make a giallo-styled film, so it’s always been in the back of my mind. Jon and I share a very similar experimental aesthetic when it comes to our ideas on cinema. When we decided to actually try and create a film, we were going in the same direction from the very start and it felt very organic and exciting. Also, a major catalyst was one cold winter evening drinking a lot of red wine and listening to the Suspiria soundtrack very loudly on repeat, which seemed to push us over the edge into Italo-madness!

BRITT: We decided to do some filming in Ryan’s apartment for fun, messing around with black leather gloves, a switchblade and some red cloth, and the idea was born. It was more that we were really spellbound by the giallo aesthetic and wanted to experiment with some of this language and atmosphere in a film.

MORAWITZ: Then they made a little trailer for a film that didn’t exist, called Yellow. And about a year later we started shooting the first scenes.

From left, Ryan Haysom - director, Catherine Morawitz - Producer, Jon Britt - Cinematographer
The story is told primarily with images; there is very little dialogue. How much of a challenge was this, and what made you decide to do it?

HAYSOM: I always listen to a lot of music when I am looking for inspiration, and I wanted music and visuals to propel the story of Yellow. As soon as Antoni Maiovvi started sending over the music that he had composed for the film, I could instantly visualize our lonely main character driving around Berlin in search of a killer. Casting Stephen M Gilbert in the main role was great for us because as an older actor his face tells all of the backstory we need.

BRITT: Probably one of my most influential movie moments was seeing the cloud slicing the moon and the razor slicing the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou. I think it was the combination of the visceral shock of seeing something that sensitive being cut, along with the potential and mystery that film language could hold. I wanted to explore what else could be done. I don’t think it was any coincidence that this was a silent film, relying solely on this power to tell its very illogical 'story.'

MORAWITZ: We wanted to really avoid as much exposition as possible, which can be delivered with functional dialogue, and try to build a very striking atmosphere for the characters and the viewer to be immersed in. But we also were walking a very thin line of not wanting to be too confusing or vague either, to give enough structure to hold it together, but to allow room for mystery. We’ve had a few people who wondered what the hell we’d made, but in general the reaction has been very positive.

How difficult was the shoot, given the low budget and various night scenes?

BRITT: The shoot was 8 or 9 days in total, broken up into two shoots, pre and post crowd funding. The first shoot, in January 2012, was pretty tough. At that point it was still only really Ryan, myself, Catherine and Steve Gilbert. It was very cold and we were outside filming the car scenes, strapping the camera to the bonnet and driving around Berlin at night.

HAYSOM: We had a very small budget and we were collapsing into bed at 6.00am and getting up at 7.00am, which I don’t recommend. I can’t say enough good things about our cast; they were a total pleasure to work with and worked incredibly hard on the shoot. Our camera crew, audio, make-up, and art department were all super soldiers.

MORAWITZ: It was tough, but filmmaking is all about being creative and thinking outside of the expected; that also applies to the organizational side of things. You can do great stuff on a low budget! A lot of people seem to think they need this and they need that, but it’s really about working out where the money is needed and where it can be done equally well with a much more efficient approach. But there is always a way around each problem. We used our imagination to make things work.

Was it a guerilla-style shoot?

MORAWITZ: No. Especially in low-budget filmmaking it’s important to plan things thoroughly I think, it allows you to make the most of what you have. We got all the shooting permits needed, so everybody could concentrate on their work and not have to worry about anything. What we wanted to make was too ambitious to film in a guerilla style. Plus we had a responsibility for a crew of about 15 people who mostly helped us out for free; we didn’t want to take any risks with being kicked out of any locations.

The film has a lonely feel to it; all those shots of the protagonist driving around empty streets and roads. What were these scenes like to film?

BRITT: It’s great when it’s been mentioned to us; it was really important for the film that we were able to make people feel that. Of course, it’s a combination of everything – Steve’s performance, Anton’s really atmospheric soundtrack, the locations, the pacing and the images together. I’m really interested in how ideas can be communicated in the most minimal way, yet be full of a strong feeling. When I look at a photo by Gregory Crewdson, there is such an intense atmosphere and so many possible stories existing inside a single frame.

HAYSOM: I love all of these shots in the film; they really have a lonely atmosphere that looks so beautiful with Anton’s haunting music. When we shot all of the driving scenes it was the coldest night of the year. We were all freezing in the middle of nowhere at 2.00am, driving up and down motorways on the outskirts of Berlin, it was quite an experience. I always laugh when I think of the car scenes, as we were all hidden inside the car with a camera on the front of it. A few cars stopped next to us while we were filming and I cant imagine what they must have thought.

Antoni Maiovvi’s music has a great mix between Goblin’s Dario Argento-era soundtracks and modern synth disco. How was it working with him?

HAYSOM: I absolutely love Maiovvi. As soon as I heard his music I knew he was perfect for the film; I had to have him do the Yellow soundtrack. When we first met I told him I wanted a mix between Dario Argento’s Tenebrae soundtrack and Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and he perfectly captured that vibe. He has synth flowing in his blood. I don’t use the word genius lightly, but I really consider him a musical genius, he’s amazingly prolific and everything he does sounds incredible and fresh. I really hope to be able to work with him on everything I do from now on; he perfectly captures the mood that I want for the visuals in my work. He also runs a record label called Giallo Disco by the way, so from the very start it was a perfect match.

Stephen M. Gilbert really impresses as the tortured lead. He conveys a wealth of emotion without even speaking. How did you go about casting the film?

HAYSOM: We met quite randomly through a few other film projects and I ended up meeting him one evening to talk about the film, I remember telling him “imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive but with an old man” and that seemed to interest him, or he might have thought I was trying to flatter him saying he looked like Ryan Gosling. Hester Arden and Rocco Menzel are also incredibly talented actors and took the film to another level. The first time I saw Hester walk onto the set in full make-up and costume it felt like a Hollywood star had walked into the room, and she was a total pro. The female role was the hardest thing to cast as they had to perform all of the female roles but she totally nailed it from day one. Rocco is interestingly a professional mime and he brought so much to the role of our black-gloved killer. He sent shivers down my spine when he was on set in his costume designed by the super-talented Smirk, it was a real buzz to see him act. I would really love to work with them again on a future project.

BRITT: We knew that the person we cast would have to have a particular presence and be able to convey those feelings and ideas without words. I think it was an interesting experience for Steve too, especially as he ended up being with the character for a longer time than he probably is normally, with the shoot being separated over 6 months. I’m not sure he had ever attempted to play a role with so little dialogue before, but in the end, because we’d spent a long time really getting to inhabit the atmosphere of the film, he really understood what was needed. There’d be scenes where we would just go as far as we could to make it as minimal as possible, and that would sometimes take a few takes to get right.

How do you feel about the positive reaction the film has received at various festivals?

MORAWITZ: I think we’re all still totally overwhelmed! I really love that it allowed us to meet a lot of great people in the last few months. People who continue to inspire us. It’s a very personal journey as well, for all of us.

HAYSOM: It’s been an incredible adventure so far and we couldn’t have asked for a better response. When you set out to make a film you never know how people are going to react to it, or even to an extent how the final film will look, but to get such an excited response so far has really made all the hard work and sleepless nights worthwhile. It brings a big smile to my face as we have also introduced a lot of people to the giallo who were unaware of it before.

BRITT: We had no expectations when we were making the film other than that we just had the desire to make it. But things just kept happening. We’re really grateful to everyone that has helped us and the film along the way, especially our producers Ben Robinson and Yazid Benfeghoul, our Transmedia Producer Reem Shaddad, Paul McEvoy and Frightfest, and obviously all our crowd-funders. They really were amazing in their initial support and this turned out to be a big spark for everything that followed. It’s really inspired me that it’s possible to make something if you have the desire and good people with you. The fact that people have actually liked the film and been very generous with what they’ve written about it has been great, but that also makes me want to do better and improve on the next one.

When Yellow debuted at Frightfest, there were a number of Italian horror films, and films inspired by them, also screened. Why do you think these types of films are becoming popular again, or are at least having such an influence over filmmakers? What is it about the giallo that inspired you to tell your story as a neo-giallo?

BRITT: I don’t know why, but I’m very happy about it. I haven’t seen very much in horror that has excited me for a long time, something that the giallo was capable of doing. I just didn’t feel anything. I think in the last few years, Let the Right One In, Amer and House of the Devil have probably had the most impact on me horror-wise. I can’t wait to see what the Amer guys do with their new film.

HAYSOM: I think to a certain extent it comes down to them being a lot easier to find, there are some great companies like Shameless and Arrow Films remastering and releasing them on DVD and Blu-ray. Italian horror has a real power and beauty, I really believe in the power of cinema and the potential of it to become real art, and Italian horror really transcends the genre into art.

You cited Michael Mann as a major influence, and this is really quite evident throughout Yellow. What other filmmakers have influenced you?

HAYSOM: Jon and myself really love Mann’s Manhunter and it inspired us a lot in the creation of Yellow. I am obviously a big Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci fan, but I do like a lot of different directors, especially David Fincher, William Friedkin, Nicholas Winding Refn, and the great man himself, John Carpenter! My all-time favourite film is Carpenter’s The Thing, so he has a special place in my heart.

BRITT: It’s fair to say that most of them weren’t giallo films or filmmakers; Ryan and I are both into surreal cinema too – Bunuel, Lynch and also Francis Bacon’s paintings. Love is the Devil had a big influence because it’s essentially a character film, but one that portrays very strong sensations in a really interesting way. Fear X and the Documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno also inspired us. But I also really love minimal, naturalistic films like Old Joy too, and I’m sure some of this language crept into Yellow somewhere.

What is next for you? Do you think you’ll remain in the horror genre? Can we ever expect a feature length giallo from you?

MORAWITZ: We’re very busy with Yellow still being selected for festivals, which is fantastic, but Ryan and Jon are also deep into writing the next film and we’re all very excited about it! I love their approach, the way they come up with ideas. It feels very organic. I can’t wait to help bring those ideas to the big screen!

HAYSOM: So the next thing we’ll do will be a feature film. It’s going to move away from the horror genre a little, but it will hold onto the same mood and style that we started experimenting with in Yellow. It is going to be a mix of Euro arthouse cinema and classic Hitchcockian Hollywood, and the ideas we are coming up with are very exciting.

BRITT: It’ll be more along the lines of a character-based mystery, with again a real emphasis on telling the story visually. I’m most interested in films that give me the opportunity to explore the possibilities of images and atmospheres, through the eyes of a flawed character. I’d definitely love to do a feature-length giallo in the future though, as long as it felt like we were trying to do something unique. I also started shooting my first feature film as cinematographer last year in Tokyo. It’s called Fonotune and is an independent Sci-fi road-movie featuring Kazushi Watanabe, who played Visitor Q in the Takashi Miike film. It’s also very visual, with spare dialogue and story, but with a different tone to Yellow, minimal and playful. I’m really excited about it and proud of what we’ve done so far. I’ll be shooting the second part of the film this year too. The director, Fabian Huebner, has really been a big supporter of Yellow.

What opportunities have you had as a result of the film?

HAYSOM: There have been so many so far. My life is so different from when we first started the film, which is crazy to think about. We met Dario Argento, drank red wine with Claudio Simonetti, and became friends with so many people all over the world. It’s been incredibly motivating and is really driving us onto our feature film.

BRITT: It’s been amazing. We’ve been to some great festivals, met some really inspiring people. One of the best moments was showing Yellow in a double-bill with Amer, meeting and talking about the films we love with the filmmakers. Mostly we’re just excited about the next project. We’ve had a lot of interest in it so far and we want to take what we experienced on Yellow and keep improving.

For more information on Yellow and all those involved in making it, check out the official website. To view the trailer for Yellow, click here.

Short Film Showcase: Yellow

Dir. Ryan Haysom

Italian giallo films, made popular by the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, are renowned for their brutal violence, dazzling style and convoluted ‘whodunit’ narratives. Immensely popular in Italy throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, they eventually fizzled out of fashion when Italian cinema as whole began to wane. Throughout the past couple of years however they have appeared to make something of a comeback; specifically in terms of their influence over a new generation of filmmakers. Recent films such as Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer, Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio, Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes and Federico Zampaglione’s Tulpa, highlight the impact the giallo has had on contemporary horror cinema, with its combination of exploitative violence, art house aesthetics and gloriously dubious fetishisation of death.

Another notable title to proudly wear its giallo influences on its blood-spattered sleeve is the short film, Yellow. Telling of a man and his increasing obsession with tracking down a vicious serial killer who has been sadistically murdering women across a nameless city, the short boasts slick stylistics, gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Jon Britt), an irresistibly moody electronic soundtrack (courtesy of Antoni Maiovvi) and more nods to the gialli of yesteryear than you can shake a glinting switchblade at. But it’s not just a pastiche of the visual grammar of the sub-genre/cycle of films (Italian genre cinema ran in cycles); it’s also an example of a filmmaker avidly acknowledging his influencing while still making his own mark.

One of the highlights of the film, dazzling style and hallucinatory soundtrack aside, is how it cattishly toys with audience perception. When discussing Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, Leon Hunt notes in A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera, that ‘the female victims are made to look as similar as possible, giving a sense of the same woman being killed over and over again.’ Haysom deploys a similar stroke of subtextual genius in Yellow by casting the same actress (the ethereal Hester Arden) to play the various victims. Is the killer reliving history by envisioning the death of a single woman over and over again, or is it his warped perspective that makes him view all women as one in the same; a girl who, for whatever reason, needs to be done away with in as bloody a fashion as possible. Myriad questions like this make Yellow a film that only rewards which each viewing.

The various shots of the sleuth driving around a darkly beautiful cityscape by night highlight his sense of unease and isolation; like all amateur detectives in the giallo, he seems to work alone, with no help from the police. Indeed, his isolation is so well evoked; Yellow exudes a stark and lonely atmosphere – verging on bleak – ensuring it has a truly haunting quality that immediately sets the viewer on edge. The performance of Stephen M. Gilbert really impresses. As the tortured man on a mission, he conveys a wealth of world-weary emotion without even speaking.

Keep a violated eye out for Mr Haysom and co in future, for if Yellow is anything to go by, this lot should deliver all manner of interesting and cool cinema.*crosses fingers for a feature length giallo*

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

House of 1,000 Dolls

Dir. Jeremy Summers

While vacationing in Tangiers, trendy couple Stephen and Marie learn that their friend Fernando’s girlfriend has been reported missing. Before long, Marie is abducted when she attends a magic show hosted by the mysterious Felix Mandeville. It soon transpires that she is being held captive in a plush brothel along with a slew of other lovelies who have been ‘collected’ from around the globe by the dastardly Mandeville in a covert sex-slave operation!

This little oddity of a film is, aside from being a lesser-seen Vincent Price vehicle, a thoroughly entertaining (in that guilty sort of way), though really quite tame romp. Produced by Harry Alan Towers (Fu Manchu, Jess Franco’s Justine, Warrior Queen and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare amongst other trashy delights), it is, according to Mark McGee, author of Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, “quite possibly the sleaziest movie AIP ever made.” I sincerely doubt that. Sure, it’s a tale of imperilled lovelies forced to work as sex-slaves and the macho men who would be their saviours, but despite its claims to be an expose on the evils of the sex trafficking industry, House of 1000 Dolls quite simply can’t live up to its lurid promise. Instead it unspools as a rather campy yarn complete with ropey dubbing and extras wearing a lot of tanned make-up. The brief moments of exploitation – scenes depicting the scantily-clad beauties mud-wrestling, cat-fighting or being whipped for trying to escape - provide much of the guilty entertainment; but it isn't as remotely sleazy as it sounds.

While there’s nothing remotely risqué about it, House does have a few surprises up its sleeve; not least an impressive opening boasting so much macabre promise. After a hearse pulls up outside an exotic mansion, the coffin is delivered inside and opened by a sneeringly suave Vincent Price, to reveal a beautiful blonde who awakens with a fright. With this opening you’d be forgiven for expecting a morbid little mystery thriller to unfold. From here though the plot becomes quite bogged down with myriad characters and subplots and it takes a while to pull everything together. Meanwhile much camp amusement ensues. When it gets going though, it’s all really quite riveting; the gently simmering plot eventually boiling into life with a lively denouement.

Director Jeremy Summers can’t quite muster the tension House needs to make it truly memorable. A couple of chase scenes are effectively handled and provide a little respite from the uneven pace, but even the scene in which a leggy Danish gymnast makes a break for it, shimmying down the wall of the house only to have her already scant clothes ripped off by the guards in hot pursuit, is more akin to Benny Hill than a suspenseful thriller. The saving grace is the main cast, who all deliver decent enough performances; particularly Price who is always watchable. Unfortunately, while he relishes his typically sinister yet strangely tragic role, he isn’t given nearly enough to do here.

While its tameness is a little disappointing, House is never dull, and even if it simply can’t live up to its seedy, sex-fuelled and exploitative promise; it’s still a distracting little thriller with enough twists and camp delight to hold your interest. Despite the pedigree of its cast, and that irresistibly exploitative premise, it’s a rather beige film, but one that you may just find yourself wanting to revisit.

House of 1,000 Dolls is released, for the first time in the UK, on 28th January courtesy of Mediumrare Entertainment. 

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe

Born on January 19th in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most recognised and revered names in gothic literature. Part of the American Romantic movement, Poe is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. Not only an author and a poet, he was also a literary critic and editor, and one of the earliest practitioners of the short story. Now widely regarded as inventing the detective fiction genre, Poe was also a forerunner of science fiction. As a popular crime and horror author, his influence spreads far and wide, and amongst the writers who owe a tremendous dept to his work are Herman Melville, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman and Jules Verne, to name but a few.

A true visionary, Poe was the first well-known American writer to attempt to irk out a living through writing alone, leading him down a path of financially instability and uncertainty. His gruesome stories reflected his inner turmoil. Haunted by the death of his mother, Poe wrestled with fears of abandonment throughout his life. He was drawn to, yet repelled by women, suffering from the inescapable notion that they, like his mother, would eventually abandon him. A morbid and melancholy romantic, Poe’s female characters are all either dead or dying, and he declared in his Philosophy of Composition, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

He died penniless, jobless, loveless and destitute on October 7, 1849, but his dark tales of madness, murder and doomed love continue to influence writers, artists and filmmakers to this day. Countless titles have been adapted for cinema throughout the years, some more loosely than others. My own particular favourites are those adapted by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. While they took massive liberties with Poe’s feverish narratives, they perfectly captured the doomful atmosphere of hopelessness which permeates Poe’s best work. The ‘Poe Cycle’ included titles such as Pit and the Pendulum, Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia, The Premature Burial and The Fall of the House of Usher.

Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'
 His influence over the work of Dario Argento is also undeniable, with the Italian director revealing: ‘On reading Poe as a child it disturbed me and left me, for a long time, feeling strange and slightly sad… When I began to make films, I recognised that my themes had some affinity with the events told by Poe in his stories, his hallucinatory worlds, his bloody visions… In my solitary moments when some frightening idea strikes me and I think: with this I will make a film – Poe’s handsome and intense face watches me, warns me to pay heed, to be careful.’

Happy Birthday Mr Poe, thank you for dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream.


'All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.'
From childhood's hour I have not been 
As others were; I have not seen 
As others saw; I could not bring 
My passions from a common spring. 
From the same source I have not taken 
My sorrow; I could not awaken 
My heart to joy at the same tone; 
And all I loved, I loved alone. 
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn 
Of a most stormy life- was drawn 
From every depth of good and ill 
The mystery which binds me still: 
From the torrent, or the fountain, 
From the red cliff of the mountain, 
From the sun that round me rolled 
In its autumn tint of gold, 
From the lightning in the sky 
As it passed me flying by, 
From the thunder and the storm, 
And the cloud that took the form 
(When the rest of Heaven was blue) 
Of a demon in my view. 

Edgar Allan Poe

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave

Dir. Emilio P. Miraglia

When Lord Alan Cunningham is released from a stint in a psychiatric hospital for murdering red-haired prostitutes reminiscent of his unfaithful late wife, he quickly remarries in an attempt to redeem himself. Once he and his new wife settle into the family home – a crumbling gothic mansion – a series of gruesome murders suggest his former wife has returned from the dead to wreck some terrible revenge…

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is one of several gialli from the early Seventies which exhibits unusual gothic influences. Alongside Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Antonio Margheriti's Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye and Miraglia’s own The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, it boasts a moody gothic atmosphere, crumbling mansion setting, psychological deterioration, dysfunctional family drama and one of those ‘have-the-dead-come-back-to-haunt-the-living-or-is-someone-trying-to-drive-the-protagonist-insane’ type plots. Initially the differences between the giallo and more traditional gothic horror seem completely at odds with each other. Gialli were, at the time, contemporary based thrillers with convoluted whodunit plots; a far cry from the baroque traditions of the gothic. Delve a little deeper however and you’ll find that both types of films possess certain similarities, and when the two styles are amalgamated, as they are in the likes of Evelyn, the result is intoxicating. The various psychological perversions of the characters that inhabit the giallo and the more traditional gothic horror film are but one heady similarity that helps bridge the hybridity. The seemingly supernatural events in the plots of gothic literature and cinema were quite often revealed to be the work of a completely deranged individual, who is nonetheless also completely fallible; as they are in the traditional giallo. Their bloody antics are inspired by greed, lust and good old fashioned insanity.

Miraglia exhibits a penchant for ravishing style; the camera work is fluid, the lighting moody and the music haunting. Evelyn plays with audience perspective from the outset, as its twisted and twisty narrative uncoils in myriad unexpected directions. The setting - a vast and crumbling gothic mansion complete with a torture chamber in the dungeon – also serves to highlight Lord Alan’s (Anthony Steffen) fragile psychiatric state; in the grand tradition of high gothic melodrama, its gradual deterioration is reflective of the protagonist’s psychological breakdown. Moments in which the supernatural creeps into the narrative to enhance the gothic atmospherics include a spooky séance scene in which Alan’s, frankly unhinged, family try to make contact with the spirit of his late wife, the titular Evelyn. A number of nightmarishly effective moments also include a taut chase scene which culminates in the spooky crypt behind the house, and features Erica Blanc wearing nothing but thigh-high leather boots as she’s pursued through the draughty mansion, dashing in and out of vast dark rooms decked out with cobwebbed chandeliers and dust-covered furniture. Similar scenes rich in a vintage gothic ambience, feature Gladys (Marina Malfatti) wafting through the castle in scant night-robes, as she’s menaced by strange noises in the night, and the various scenes in which Alan peruses the spectre of his dead wife through fog enshrouded gardens. Some of this imagery would be echoed in Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, not least the sight of Gladys wandering through the grounds at night in a red cape.

Another overtly gothic element of the film is the significance attached to the portrait of a dead woman – in this case Alan’s wife Evelyn – which serves to remind certain characters of the past and highlight its hold over them. Portraits of dead women were similarly used in the likes of Hitchcock’s gothic melodrama Rebecca and Riccardo Freda’s ravishing tale of necrophilia The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock. The moment when Alan spies Gladys in front of his wife’s portrait as she adjusts a red wig is equal parts chilling and beautiful. Speaking of beautiful, there are also gorgeous slow-motion flashbacks in which Lord Alan’s wife runs through a meadow at twilight in nothing but diaphanous, billowing robes – which of course she soon discards – to rendezvous with a secret lover. These are imbued with strange poignancy thanks to Bruno Nicolai’s ice-meltingly beautiful score – which takes a break from 'gothic-lounge' mode to feature tremulous and tingling piano motifs, breathlessly sweeping strings and wordless vocals.

Exploitative moments of titillation more typical of the giallo are also evident, and imbued with a morbid theatricality. One scene features an exotic dancer who emerges from a coffin to perform a kinkily macabre strip-tease. Interestingly, given certain revelations later in the plot, this moment is quite telling, with its eerily alluring maiden emerging from a coffin to perform in an act. All the red herrings and blackmail sub-plots the giallo is famed for abound throughout Evelyn. Most of the characters have motive for murder. They are not a sympathetic bunch. The women are portrayed as scheming wenches, and the men suspicious and sleazy. Indeed the protagonist is a barely functioning psychotic who takes red-headed prostitutes back to his castle to act out morbid fantasies with them before killing them. Nice. The film also has a strange humour coursing through it and features a number of bizarre moments - such as the line up of identical maids and an unusual attempt to dispose of a body involving a skulk of foxes. There’s also a premature burial for the Poe fans, an imperilled wheelchair-bound aunt for fans of Bay of Blood and myriad creepy shenanigans afoot in the family crypt.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave is a stunningly stylish yarn, resplendent in a spooky gothic atmosphere and full of the tropes and conventions giallo lovers will no doubt be familiar with. The influence of Bava, Freda, Argento and Hitchcock positively enshrouds it.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Ancient Graves Exposed in 'Dracula Graveyard'

Perched upon the north-east coast of England, the ancient seaside town of Whitby is nowadays synonymous with macabre tales of the undead thanks to its role in Bram Stoker’s feverish, blood-fuelled novel, Dracula. The town had an immense influence on Stoker when he came to pen his classic vampire novel, and it has recently made the headlines with morbid events that could have been lifted directly from the pages of Stoker’s creepy classic. Human bones have been exposed in St Mary’s church graveyard after a landslide took away part of the cliff upon which it rests. The landslip, caused by a broken drainage pipe and excessive rainfall, has exposed ancient graves, and a stream of water can now be seen flowing out of the rock face where the bones were recovered. According to officials, the bones have been collected and will be reinterred.

The church, founded around AD1110, was built more than 900 years ago, with the cemetery closing in 1865. Several passages of Dracula take place in, or were inspired by this location. A Grade I listed building, St Mary’s is the oldest building left in Whitby. The land, including the cliff itself, is the property of the church, and it is their responsibility to carry out repairs. St Mary's rector, Canon David Smith said: "The cemetery has been closed for over a century, so if any graves are exposed it's only bones. If anything is exposed we collect and reinter them in the same churchyard away from the edge." He also explained that the church has been trying to rectify such matters and amongst other things has been liaising with civil engineers to make the cliff more secure. Whitby town councillor, Steve Smith, said the church building was not under threat. "The church is close to the edge of the landslip, some work has been done where the slippage is. I'm assured by the rector that the church itself is built on a solid rock foundation."

Residents are concerned further landslides may occur should the cliff be subjected to more heavy rainfall. This is the latest disaster to effect the town; five houses in Aelfleda Terrace were demolished in December after heavy rain and flooding washed the steep bank beneath them away.

"The houses of the old town are all red-roofed and seemed piled up one over the other…"
Abbey ruins beyond the church
This news follows on from the announcement that Paragon Entertainment - the company that designed the Titanic Belfast experience in Northern Ireland - has revealed plans for a new million-pound visitor attraction based upon the work of Hammer; with Whitby touted as the prime location. Head of Paragon, and Whitby resident Mark Pyrah, told the Whitby Gazette that the town was number one on his list of preferred locations, stating: “I strongly believe Whitby is a fantastic site for one of these attractions. We’re hoping Hammer is going to be a groundbreaking attraction and we won’t look at another site, other than Whitby, in the north east. We want to create a series of horror visitor attractions. They could be museum-based or attraction-based – by picking things from the films – or it could be a scare attraction, it depends on the local audience.”

Sir Christopher Lee's incarnation of Dracula is now iconic.
The Whitby attraction could really enrich the town’s connection with the macabre and otherworldly; there are already myriad Bram Stoker and Dracula related tours visitors can enjoy, and the town is also home to the annual Bram Stoker International Film Festival. Head of Hammer Films Simon Oakes commented: “We are excited to be working with Paragon. They are one of the leading companies in the UK who have a deep understanding of what UK customers want in terms of exciting visitor attractions. This deal with Paragon gives Hammer another exciting way to give our audiences and fans a chance to get involved with the characters and worlds created in our films and take fans to the next level in terms of visitor attraction and experience.”

The recent worldwide success of The Woman in Black has truly heralded Hammer’s comeback, and it appears to be making the most of its success by branching out into other spooky avenues such as publishing, horror theatre production and now a visitor attraction in Whitby.

It is said that had Stoker not stayed in the quaint town, it is unlikely that Dracula would ever have been written. Aside from using it as a central location in the story, Stoker also based many of the events in the novel on real life events from the Whitby area. The utterly haunting passage in which the ghostly schooner, the Demeter, is dashed into the harbour with the captain’s corpse lashed to the helm, and a huge wolf-like creature bounding overboard and disappearing into the dark of the stormy night, is the stuff of nightmares. However these moments were apparently inspired by actual events Stoker became aware of while staying in Whitby.

"But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up on deck from below ... and running forward, jumped from the bow on to the sand. Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier ... it disappeared in the darkness."

The locals regaled the writer with tales of the Russian ship, the Dmitri, which, much like events later echoed in Dracula, was beached in the town’s port after a huge storm. The monstrous wolf-like creature is reminiscent of the Barghest, a huge phantom hound which, according to local legend, stalks the Yorkshire Moors and the areas surrounding Whitby. It was also in the town library where Stoker allegedly encountered the name Dracula for the first time. Borrowing An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) By William Wilkinson, Stoker made notes from the book (now part of his papers housed at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia), including a short section on a "Voivode Dracula", who fought against the Turks in ancient times, which he copied verbatim into his notes: ‘footnote, Dracula in Wallachian language means Devil.’

My good friend, the esteemed Jon (Shocks to the System) Towlson visited Whitby last year and took some photos. You can view them here, and as I’m sure you’ll agree, they perfectly capture the haunting beauty of this place. It’s easy to see why it had such an influence over Bram Stoker, and continues to bewitch the plethora of adoring horror fans who pilgrimage here year after year. Hopefully the church and local officials can repair the damage done to the graveyard and preserve this important piece of British horror heritage.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Short Film Showcase: Out There

Dir. Randal Plunkett

When Robert (Conor Marren) awakens deep in the woods with a head wound and no memory of how he got there, he attempts to find help while memories of the recent past come flooding back to haunt him…

Director Randal Plunkett’s brief but powerful tale hits the ground running and immediately draws us in with its sinister atmosphere and quietly smouldering tension. The early on sense of isolation and danger, together with the juxtaposition of the beautiful, sun-dappled woodlands and the macabre discoveries made within them, is a potent mix. The main focus of the narrative is Robert’s cautious, increasingly desperate exploration of his immediate surroundings, and his gradual realisation that something is wrong. Very wrong. Stumbling along old country lanes – like those ones in old Irish tales on which the devil is said to have been glimpsed - as the quiet around him relentlessly encroaches, he eventually happens on an old deserted farm; the only sound coming from a generator, breaking the silence like a harbinger of doom. Entering a nearby cottage, he sees ominously cryptic messages scrawled in Latin - extinctus amabitur idem (the hated man when dead will be loved) and vitam impendere vero (dedicate life to truth), which add a further sense of panic to proceedings.

Accompanied by a rumbling, intensely unsettling soundtrack (courtesy of Darius McGann), Robert’s shocking discovery in the cottage, and the lead up to it, is one of the highlights of the film. The production design of the dingy dwelling is exquisitely morbid, though hints that it was once a modest but cosy family home. As an array of disturbing accoutrements is revealed, frenzied panic is interrupted by the suggestion Robert isn’t alone in the house…

Tension is also generated from the various sun-kissed flashbacks he has of his girlfriend Jane (Emma Eliza Regan). These not only serve to gradually explain how he ended up alone and injured in the woods, but create a sense of unease as they chart the disintegration of his relationship with her. When she imparts surprising news, he doesn’t seem to be as happy as he should, and the notion that something is festering between them becomes almost unbearable. Plunkett’s deployment of slow-burning tension finally ignites in a jolting climax - heralded when a body in the road stands up - which feels all the more powerful because of the increasingly nightmarish build up to it. A rash decision made by one of the characters will haunt you long after the credits evaporate.

A brief but memorable story of one man's search for the truth in what appears to be the apocalypse, combining eerie atmospherics, beautiful camera work, creepy locations and dripping, clawing tension.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Audiodrome #13

In this month's edition of Audiodrome: Music in Film, I take a look at Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk’s astoundingly beautiful soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark; Lars Von Trier’s unsentimental deconstruction of the Hollywood musical – and devastating attack on the American Dream. It tells of a young Czech immigrant in 60’s America who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her young son. Various musical numbers, composed and performed by Björk, burst from the narrative as her character’s flights of fancy and day-dreams. Drawing inspiration from classical music, and of course classic musicals, Björk’s score for Dancer in the Dark is one of her finest pieces of work.

Head over to Paracinema.net to read the full review.

While you’re there, why not pick up issue 18 of Paracinema Magazine. Articles include 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, and 3D’s Use and Potential in Today’s Cinematic Landscape by Caleb McCandless. Support Independent Publishing!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Berberbian Sound Studio

Dir. Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s sophomore film is a striking combination of dazzling Argento style and haunting Lynchian atmosphere; it’s as though the director glimpsed into the collective mind-space of these filmmakers and recreated what he saw and heard there in this claustrophobic nightmare of sound and vision. Set in the Seventies, Berberbian Sound Studio tells of mild-mannered British sound technician Gilderoy (Toby Jones), who is brought to Italy to work on the sound effects for a gruesome horror film. His increasingly nightmarish task slowly begins to take its toll, and before long, life begins to imitate art. Or does it? From the opening moments as Gilderoy is led into the studio – rather like a patient being led into a psychiatric hospital - an ominous dread seeps throughout proceedings and an ever dank ambiguity manifests itself.

Alone in a foreign land, Gilderoy is completely ostracised by the rest of the crew as he spends his days recording hours of screaming, crying and all manner of grisly sound effects: including a lustful goblin creeping into a room full of sleeping girls. Unspeakable acts of violence towards vegetables ensues as Gilderoy, bowing to the pressure of the task ahead of him, seemingly slides into despair and possible psychosis as he simulates the sound effects for the upsettingly violent film. Pulverising watermelons to suggest the sound of blades plunging into naked flesh, pulling stalks off radishes to mimic the sound of hair being pulled out of scalps and pouring oil into a hot pan to simulate a scalding poker being thrust into the vagina of an accused witch are just some of the macabre sounds he must create. As much as he abhors the violence depicted in the film, his part in giving life to these atrocities is undeniable. He soon begins to become unhinged by his complicity in simulating the sounds of violent death. As Peter Bradshaw evocatively articulates in his review of the film, “At the mixing desk (Gilderoy) is part high priest, part human sacrifice in the black mass of cinema production.” He is as much of an accomplice to director Santini’s horrific art and its arguably damaging effect on its audience, as he is a helpless victim of it. In his portrayal of a rationally minded individual thrust into an overwhelming situation that tests his principles, Toby Jones delivers an impeccable performance.

That Strickland chose the post-production process of an Italian horror film in the Seventies to serve as the backdrop for his tale of a sound engineer coming undone is not only irresistible, but also practical. Italian horror films were usually shot without sound; it was added in post production and the practice of dubbing the voices of actors was common practice. As anyone who has ever seen such films will testify, this usually results in an eerie, uncanny and rather ‘detached’ quality to the performances and situations onscreen. These disembodied voices echo throughout Berberian Sound Studio as they throb down empty corridors and fill close-up shots of wide eyes and mouths. There is so much here for admirers of gialli and horror all'italiana. Not only peppered with nods to the giallo – such as the black leather gloved hand that starts the projector rolling (and arguably Gilderoy’s downward spiral into despair) - the film is awash with striking images echoing the sexualised panic and violence of Italian horror; in particular the parades of ample-lunged beauties operatically screaming for their lives while surrounded by total darkness in sound booths. And then there’s the horror film itself Gilderoy is working on, The Equestrian Vortex. While we never see it, through the sounds Gilderoy creates we can imagine its devastating violence and obscene nature. Through inane dialogue whispered by voice-over actresses we also learn that it's set in a riding school plagued by witchcraft and violent occultists. In other words: Suspiria with riding-crops. The only glimpse (but what a glimpse!) we catch is its lurid opening titles; all rotoscoped and jarring imagery of Satanic cults, witches and abhorrent devilry, complete with an ear-splitting soundtrack of pounding piano, deranged drum arrangements and prog-electro courtesy of Broadcast doing their best Goblin impression.

There is a meticulous attention to detail with regards to the vintage sound recording equipment Gilderoy uses. It’s presented as an almost alchemical apparatus of occult origin, amalgamating technology with arcane mystery. The sinister, otherworldly portrayal of the equipment, as it records, manipulates and plays back all manner of alarming sounds, evokes the work of sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, who often presented technology as a quasi-magical force with ominous connotations. In the grand tradition of the giallo, the instruments of death (in this case, sound recording equipment) are strangely fetishised, as Strickland’s camera gazes upon them in exquisite close up and longing tracking shots. While many of the visual references may be lost on those not fluent in Argento, Bava and Martino, it shouldn’t detract from the power the film wields in its depiction of a mild-mannered, vulnerable man becoming increasingly disorientated in hopelessness, frustration and despair. Interestingly, the film also seems to have been inspired as much by vintage library recordings and the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, from whence the likes of Delia Derbyshire unleashed their unearthly and haunting soundscapes.

Sinister undertones abound in the mystery of why Gilderoy was hired to work on this brutal title. His background is in Home Counties nature documentaries. However this is not really the focus of Strickland's story. Much like the characters and plots in bygone Italian horror films, the characters in Berberian Sound Studio are merely pawns the director uses to explore the dark themes which take centre stage: isolation, psycho-sexual anxiety and the power of cinema. Much like the characters in the gialli of yesteryear, they're victims of cruel logic, and there’s a sense that they are somehow being manipulated by something beyond comprehension. The dark influence of horror cinema, perhaps? Strickland’s motives are ever ambiguous and his focus is not conventional.

All the beautiful build up leads to a sudden and unexpected ending that has echoes of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive; not as disappointing as it sounds given the unconventional nature of the film. Indeed, Berberian Sound Studio really pushes the boundaries of what constitutes horror, and what contemporary audiences expect from it as a genre. Far from demystifying the magic of cinema, Strickland’s film enshrouds it in an otherworldly allure.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Diabolique Magazine 14

Issue 14 of the deliciously macabre Diabolique is now available for pre-order.

A bi-monthly print/online horror magazine, the aim of Diabolique is to explore the various aspects of the horror genre - including film, literature, theatre and art - with a specific focus on gothic sensibility.

All manner of ghostly shenanigans and haunted happenings abound in this issue, including a look at the making of the Guillermo del Toro production, Mama, and an array of articles on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and its various adaptations - including Jack Clayton's chilling classic, The Innocents.

There's also an examination of the history of haunted house films, a look at the dark side of love in classic horror cinema, an exploration of the history of Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead, and a little something by yours truly on Hammer's new stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw and the lineage of the Theatre of Horror.

Pre-order your issue here