Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Watch

2008
Dir. Jim Donovan

In a bid to finish her thesis, psych student Cassie accepts a job at an isolated fire watch tower. The solitude and stress of finishing her thesis – on post-traumatic stress, no less – take their toll on poor Cassie, who begins to suspect the area may be haunted… Could she be suffering from a nervous breakdown? Or is she really being targeted by a tragic spectre? Or, is something equally sinister but much less supernatural afoot? So many possibilities.

As mentioned in the previous review, I enjoy catching random horror films on late night TV. If said random horror flick features Clea Duvall, even better. Boasting a rather similar story to Deadline, The Watch also tells of a troubled young woman attempting to get her life back on track after a traumatic incident in her past. What better way to do that than head out into the middle of fucking nowhere to finish your thesis on childhood psychology and have a few ghostly encounters that push you to the brink of your sanity while you’re there? While it has a much lower budget than Deadline, The Watch is a much more effective spookfest. With a well-rounded, well written character to anchor the story – and a typically understated performance from Duvall – The Watch is an intriguing little made for TV thriller with a few surprises to offer.

As it was made for TV, it is all fairly tame stuff, but – as demonstrated by Val Lewton in the 1940s, less is more - there are a couple of subtly creepy, atmospheric moments, and the setting itself is highly effective, aptly conveying just how remote and cut off Cassie is. Rather beautiful by day, with stunning views over an autumnal forest valley, by night, when the wind howls and shrieks through the draughty cabin, it becomes somewhere only a horror film fan would want to stay. The use of sound really enhances the eerie atmosphere. Verging on dilapidated, the cabin creaks and moans as much as the ancient trees surrounding it, and when the sun goes down, the wind moaning through the cracks and the sudden bursts of static from the radio serve to make it a highly unnerving place indeed. Cassie’s interaction with a couple of other characters detracts a little from the doomful solitude and loneliness she’s supposed to be experiencing, but Clea Duvall is so convincing this can be forgiven, and the hushed moments concerning a water-pump and a moved chair are quietly chilling.


Via radio, Cassie strikes up a friendship with another young woman in a lookout cabin across the valley. Of course, we know this other woman is a ghost as soon as she says her name is Polly. As we're such vigilant viewers, we remember that the name Polly was carved into the wall of the food locker and is glimpsed scrawled inside the books Cassie reads. Spooky. The way in which Polly's spectral nature is suggested is still quite subtle though. A lonely ghost who simply wants a companion – but doesn’t take rejection well – she has an interesting back-story. While her penchant for ripping the last pages out of books is a little twee (she does so because she’s a ghost and her story has no ending, yada, yada, yada, and she’s doomed to go on and on without ever finding peace or resolution) when she finally reveals herself, it’s also obvious she’s a fan of J-Horror.

When the denouement comes and all is revealed (shades of Clive Barker’s Dread and, believe it or not, Sliver abound), the matter-of-fact and surprisingly lo-fi manner in which it’s all handled may leave some viewers feeling a little let down; it’s all very ‘oh, I see. Okay then.’ Someone is even scolded. As a character study and rumination on the effects of isolation though, The Watch is pretty solid. While some of the reveals may seem far fetched, as a statement on the cold, callous nature of mankind, it’s as dark as a made for TV thriller can be.

If you happen to catch it on TV late at night like I did, it’s worth checking out.

Deadline

2011
Dir. Sean McConville

When a screenwriter travels to a house in the middle of nowhere to finish her latest project, sinister occurrences ensue. Given that said screenwriter is recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, staying alone in a big old house in the middle of nowhere probably wasn’t the greatest idea ever. However it means that director McConville can play that old ‘is she really seeing ghosts or just losing her mind again’ card.

I enjoy catching random horror films on late night TV. Sometimes you’re rewarded for idly flicking through the channels until something catches your eye – favourite films I’ve discovered this way include Cat People, Halloween, The Pit and the Pendulum and Dawn of the Dead. When you see that a horror film starring Brittany Murphy as a nervous writer staying alone in a creepy house has just started – you just have to watch it. Deadline seemed to me to have a lot of potential; a nice (if not wholly original) idea, a pace and tone that initially suggested slow-burning creepiness, some moody cinematography, and the names Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch in the titles. Sadly, while it possesses a quiet moodiness, Deadline is also so lumbered with clichés and obvious signposts it never generates any suspense.

Throughout the crawling running time we’re subjected to cliché after cliché - doors slowly creaking open, baths overflowing, wet footprints appearing, someone playing Moonlight Sonata in the dead of night. That sort of thing. The sort of thing you’ve seen in every other horror film ever. As this is a contemporary horror film, the protagonist is also armed with a video-camera, and while this is a handy plot device and ensures McConville can treat us to grainy POV shots aplenty, it makes no sense. But wait! Not long after some spooky stuff happens, Alice (Murphy) finds a horde of DV tapes while exploring the scary attic, which is handy because she just happens to have a DV camera to watch them on. Cue house’s violent backstory and typical underuse of Thora Birch, as Alice watches the gradual breakdown of the marriage of former residents Lucy and David; which David handily documented on his DV camera. Here the narrative splits between us watching Murphy who is watching the tapes – and Birch – the young married woman featured on the tapes, whose husband is becoming increasingly possessive and hostile. And filming it all.

Things to do in a haunted house: Take a bath.

Things to do in a haunted house: Take another bath.

The plot thickens as Alice begins to suspect that the house is haunted by Thora Birch. More clichés abound as spooky messages appear on her laptop, half glimpsed figures dart past the foreground or appear in mirrors, and countless slow tracking shots around the house remind us that Alice is all alone. When she isn’t watching the tapes or wondering why the bath is overflowing, or indeed, just sitting in the bath pouting and gazing off into the distance looking confused and a bit sleepy, she wanders around the house looking quite confused. There’s an eerie nursery with an empty cot, naturally, and all the while the house creaks and moans - probably under the weight of the clichés that are languidly unfolding within it.


'How spooky. The bath is full of water. I should probably take another bath.'

Thora really wishes Brittany would stop hogging the bath.

An emaciated Murphy seems unsure of herself – it’s quite hard not to read into her somnambulistic performance given the tragic circumstances of her life around the time this film – one of her last – was made. Birch is typically wasted and Marc Blucas elicits about as much menace as Alice’s laptop. Meanwhile as Alice is increasingly convinced that “there’s someone in the house” (no, really?), she starts downing the medication and upping the ambiguity of whether or not she’s really being haunted or just slipping back into a psychological breakdown. Talk of her abusive ex-boyfriend’s release from jail doesn’t help, nor does it generate any suspense as the film just plods along to its twisty, jaw-droppingly stupefying climax.

Deadline is a wasted opportunity. Its muddled script wastes the talents of Murphy and Birch – who are given so little to work with – and McConville’s reticent direction fails to generate any tension or illicit any emotional reaction from the viewer. This should have been a creepy slow-burner, not a tedious burn-out.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Paracinema 20 Now Available to Pre-Order

Back in 2007, an independently produced magazine focusing on all things ‘genre cinema’ tentatively, nay, modestly made its way onto the shelves of various indie retailers across New York City. Six years later and said independently produced magazine is still going strong and, more importantly, has still managed to retain its unique perspective.

Each lushly produced issue of Paracinema mines the depths of genre cinema by way of a series of essays and features written by admirers of niche cinema, examining, celebrating and promoting films all too often relegated to the sidelines. Films deemed difficult, dangerous or just plain dire by more mainstream publications, are lovingly dissected and discussed without prejudice or delusion.

Issue 20 (!) of Paracinema is now available to pre-order and includes the likes of:

A Serbian Film: Transgressive Horror in the Internet Age by Thomas Duke

Juice Dogs & Erotic Trauma: An Exploration into Stephen Sayadian’s Nightdreams and Dr. Caligari by Heather Drain

The Vehicle Possessed–Masculinity and Male Agency in Wheels of Terror by Seth Goodkind

The Lion in Winter: The Later Years of the American Action Hero by Jon Abrams

Eyes Wide Open: Finding the Key to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining through Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 by Todd Garbarini

Plus essays on Sam Raimi, David Patrick Kelly, Bruce Lee Exploitation Cinema and much, much more.

Why not head over to Paracinema.net and pre-order your copy today. Support independent publishing and magazines like Paracinema.Them's good peoples.

Stigma

1977
Dir. Lawrence Gordon Clark

The removal of an ancient menhir from a family’s back garden unleashes a blood curse upon an unwitting housewife.

This was the seventh and last instalment of A Ghost Story for Christmas to be directed by Gordon Clare, and the first to feature an original story – not an MR James adaptation – in a then contemporary setting. Written specially for television by Clive Exton, Stigma is much more graphic than any of the other Ghost Story for Christmas films and features a bleak and doomful tone that, while perfectly in keeping with the sombre tone of the earlier James adaptations, also echoes Exton’s prior work such as Doomwatch (1972) and Survivors (1975–1977).

That the horror plays out within the cosy home of a middle class family enhances the impact. Like all good horror stories it features very ordinary people, mundane even, caught up in an incomprehensibly extraordinary situation. The blending of the ancient (the standing stones) with the then contemporary (the family and their plans for a new lawn) is a striking one. Unlike the other Ghost Story for Christmas films, this one does not feature a stuffy male protagonist ensconced in research and academia, but a modern, middleclass housewife at the centre of the haunting. The question of whether or not the nasty haunting is psychological or not, isn’t left unanswered for long. Katherine’s body begins to bleed uncontrollably, though she exhibits no wounds. As the bleeding continues and worsens, her sense of desperation and terror is effectively conveyed by actress Kate Binchy. We see her in private moments as she undresses in the bathroom, frantically trying to find the source of the blood. The nudity is presented in a matter of fact way, heightening not only tension, but the vulnerability of the helpless protagonist. This is body-horror at its most primal and terrifying.



It’s almost impossible not to view Stigma as an effective menstrual horror piece commenting on the persecution of women. Domestic horror abounds as we see Katherine going about her daily chores and preparing dinner while gradually realising that something is very wrong with her body. Her daughter Verity witnesses her bleeding uncontrollably, a fate that could be said to soon befall the girl when she comes of age. Katherine’s fragile body and the wounds wrought upon it appear to mirror what may have happened to the woman whose remains are discovered beneath the menhir. Much later, when Verity has, rather tellingly, painted her nails bright red and suggestively toys with an onion (in folklore onions were used as relics to prevent evil spirits and demons from invading the home, much like garlic is used to repel vampires) she appears much more sure of herself, and her interactions with the virile young labourer who was called in to remove the menhir, have gone beyond mere flirtation.



The family’s decision to have the giant stone removed from their garden decries the destruction of ancient sites by the onset of modernisation. The use of standing stones - and the way they appear to encroach upon the lives of the characters - and the haunting, potentially lethal arcane secrets they retain, echoes similar titles such as The Stone Tape (1972), Children of the Stones (a BBC TV series broadcast in the same year as Stigma) and The Owl Service (1969), an Arther Machen-esque tale set in the Welsh countryside and detailing a bloody history repeating itself. Their presence also harks back to the opening of Jacques Tourneur's masterful adaptation of MR James' Casting the Runes, Night of the Demon (1957).

Stigma may have been criticised at the time for moving away from the typical James adaptations, but that it still retains the ability to unsettle is testament to its quiet power. While it may not chill the blood as much as, say, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, it still gets under the skin with its unnerving story, hopeless tone and relatable characters.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Audiodrome #17: The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh

When you think of Italian horror cinema, chances are you envision beautiful women screaming for their lives while being slashed to ribbons by a psycho in black leather gloves. Barbara Steele, Daria Nicolodi and Edwige Fenech are but several distinct female faces that spring to mind when contemplating Italian genre films. Moving behind the camera though, women are much less represented; in fact their presence is downright scant. There are however a few notable individuals who have proved they’re just as able to create cinematic shocks as the boys. One such woman is composer Nora Orlandi.

Ms Orlandi’s jazz-infused score for Sergio Martino’s dazzling giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, enhances the decadent, kinky story, and mirrors the dark sensuality pulsing at the heart of it.

Head over to Paracinema to read my review.

While you’re there, why not pick up issue 19 of Paracinema Magazine. Inside you’ll find the likes of Aural Enigmas: Sound Design in Ti West’s The Innkeepers by Todd Garbarini, Corpse Fucking Art: A Guide to Necrophilia in Horror Cinema by Samm Deighan and What’s In A Name? The Rise and Decline of Hollywood Fall Guy Alan Smithee by yours truly.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Byzantium

2013
Dir. Neil Jordan

Byzantium sees Neil Jordan return to vampire territory for the first time since Interview with a Vampire; echoes of which abound throughout this compelling story of a mother and daughter whose dependency upon human blood, and each other, threatens to become their undoing. Adapted for screen by Moira Buffini, and based on her play, A Vampire Story, the film follows bawdy Clara (Gemma Arterton) and introverted Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) as they seek sanctuary in a rundown guesthouse in a quiet English seaside resort.

Not your typical vampire film, its character driven narrative dispels many of the usual traits associated with cinematic bloodsuckers. Dreamily filmed, Jordan’s careful direction beckons us into the story and immerses us within it. Odd and wonderful things are done in the reconstruction of vampire lore - there are no fangs, only thumbnails that become taloned - and while a few conventions remain – blood dependence, immortality, needing to be invited across a threshold – they sit at ease with the unusual mythology created by Buffini. The 'sucreants' as they are called, are an exclusively patriarchal order called The Pointed Nails of Justice (members include Jonny Lee Millar’s sinister Captain Ruthven and Sam Riley’s sensitive Darvell), who must prove their worthiness of immortality, devote their lives to arcane practices and uphold a stringent code. As events unfold we learn that Clara and Eleanor are essentially outlaws from this order, and are being hunted by its members who don’t accept that women can ‘create life.’

Each character struggles with their place in the world. Eleanor longs to tell her secret to someone, to put down roots and lead a settled life. In an attempt to gain catharsis, she writes her story in a notebook, only to tear up the pages and scatter them to the wind. Like Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, she’s trapped in the body of a child for all eternity, and her melancholic disposition stems as much from this as it does from her turbulent relationship with her sister/mother, Clara. The two women have vastly different approaches to survival; this is deftly demonstrated in the opening scenes as Clara, seen working as a dancer in a club, garrottes a mysterious pursuer when he corners her in a dingy flat, while Eleanor, who only accepts blood from consenting individuals tired of living, is seen (re)acquainting herself with an old man who wants to die. Much later, we learn that these individuals knew her in their youth; they are people she shared her secret with, and their realisation of who she is and that her story is true, is quietly moving.



The mystery of why the two women are so nomadic is carefully developed. Clara lives in fear of being discovered and her connection to The Pointed Nails of Justice dogs her. This is conveyed as her back story unfolds through dreams and flashbacks, instigated by Eleanor writing down her story, slowly revealing who the woman are, the bond they share, and how they came to live the lives they do. The transformation sequences, which occur in a mysterious cave on a rocky island, from which flocks of squawking birds erupt and cascade over waterfalls gushing with blood, are strikingly realised and surely amongst Jordan’s most provocative.

The scene where Eleanor is watching Dracula: Prince of Darkness on a TV in the guesthouse – the scene in which Helen is suggestively staked [read by many critics as a rape scene]) – speaks of the sexualised persecution of female vampires throughout cinema and literature, and indeed the plight facing Clara and Eleanor; women who gained the secret of immortality only to be hunted and persecuted by the men they stole it from.
There are also a number of interesting similarities with the elegant and erotic Daughters of Darkness - the coastal guesthouse setting, various sexual liaisons and central female vampire companions - and with Peter Pontikis’s Swedish film Not Like Others, in which two vampire sisters evade attempts on their lives, while one of them struggles to lead a ‘normal’ life.

As lyrical and poetic as any of Jordan’s other film work, Byzantium is infused with poignant moments and striking, fairytale-like imagery. The deeply melancholy score by Javier Navarette echoes his work on Pan’s Labyrinth and richly underpins the sadness of the characters. As the various story strands past and present weave together, the pace picks up and whisks us towards a violent and eventually bittersweet denouement.