Sunday, 25 August 2013

Missionary

With its twisted tale of obsessive, unrequited love, and the dark and violent places it can take us, Missionary follows a more or less typical woman-stalked-by-crazed-suitor narrative. While it refuses to stray too far from a well-trodden path, it doesn’t feel too conventional due to its slow-burn approach, careful characterisation and decent performances.

At times it echoes those early 90s cuckoo-in-the-nest psycho thrillers like Fatal Attraction, Unlawful Entry, Fear and myriad made-for-TV thrillers, in which an unhinged outsider worms his/her way into an all-American family, only to eventually show their true psychotic colours when their obsession reaches fever pitch.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

While you're there, check out our coverage of the other titles screening at this year's Fright Fest.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

V/H/S/2

Anthology movies can be tricky to pull off properly; by their very nature they can be uneven in tone, the narrative constantly upended when we pull back to the framing story, the differing tones and pacing of the individual segments.

When done well though, we get such classics as Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, the chilling Ealing classic Dead of Night and George Romero’s lurid pulp-fest Creepshow.

V/H/S/2 improves on the formula established by the original film; by slim-lining the segments, and by actually featuring fewer segments, the impact is undeniable.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

While you're there, why not check out our coverage of the other titles screening at this year's Fright Fest

Wither

Over the past few years Scandinavian horror has been making quite the mark on genre cinema, with filmmakers finding ways to surprise audiences and subvert expectations with titles like Let the Right One In, Not Like Others and Cold Prey. Some even mine spooky Nordic folklore for frights — think Marianne and Trollhunter — lending their films a unique tone quite unlike anything else around.

The latest Scandiwegian chiller, Wither, has been touted as the Swedish Evil Dead, and with good reason. Gratuitous splatter FX aside though, it fails to offer much in the way of ingenuity, its set-up all too familiar to horror audiences.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

While you're there, why not check out our coverage of other titles screening at this year's Fright Fest. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Broken Mirrors/Bleeding Ears: An Evening with The Claudio Simonetti Horror Project

Last night saw Belfast’s Waterfront Hall play host to a very special screening of Dario Argento’s nightmarish, witch-infested classic, Suspiria. The screening, courtesy of the lovely folks at the Belfast Film Festival, was accompanied by a live score performed by none other than original Goblin member and long time Argento collaborator, Claudio Simonetti, and his band, the Simonetti Horror project. My ears are still ringing…

Suspiria, for the uninitiated, is the terrifying tale of American ballet student Suzy Banyon, who enrols at an exclusive dance academy in Germany. Her arrival coincides with a raging storm and the savage murder of another student. Increasingly odd occurrences and other grisly deaths suggest that there is something evil lurking within the school, and Suzy eventually discovers that it is actually a witches' coven. Often hailed as Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria is a visceral onslaught of vision, sound and colour. The viewer is bombarded by graphic scenes of extreme violence, lurid lighting, overwhelming production design and an extremely sinister and powerful soundtrack courtesy of Italo prog-rockers Goblin.

The score is immensely important in Suspiria; it not only flogs the story forward, but compliments the bombardment of visual excess. Eerie vocal work, battering, crashing drums, shrieking strings and a sinister music box lullaby played on synthesisers culminate in a relentless attack on the ears. At times, strains of an oddly Eastern European variety, both mysterious and otherworldly, become apparent. A resonant and droning bass beat licked at by rasping, guttural whisperings, becomes mesmerising – and had no small influence on the scores of John Carpenter. A rough cut of the soundtrack was apparently played full blast on set to unnerve the actors and get them into a suitably unsettled mood.



Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of hearing this score performed live. To describe the effect it has as 'sensory overload' doesn’t quite do it justice. Simonetti was joined by Daemonia members Bruno Previtali on (what I think was) bouzouki, and Titta Tani on percussion, their equipment laid out beneath the vast screen upon which Suspiria bled across. While there were only three of them, the musicians concocted a deafening sound that bombarded the audience, assaulted the senses and throbbed throughout the building. At times the music drowned out some of the dialogue, but with a film like Suspiria - the emphasis is firmly on the sound and visuals - this was a minor discrepancy that failed to hinder the experience. During quieter moments the three would whisper insidiously into microphones, their rasping voices creeping through the air and down the spine, conjuring all manner of otherworldly menace.




Horror soundtracks are usually crucial in helping to establish mood, create tension and inform onscreen action. All too often though, they can be lazy and predictable. When they’re good however, they perfectly compliment and enhance the mood and atmosphere of the film, and can often give it a completely unique feel (case in point: The Wicker Man). When John Carpenter was attempting to secure a distributor for Halloween, he screened the film to a prospective buyer without the score (it wasn't ready yet), prompting her to claim ‘it just isn’t scary.’ Once the score was composed and inserted, I’m sure she changed her mind… When estranged from the visuals some scores can lose their power. Experiencing a score performed live alongside the film can really highlight its strengths – or weaknesses. What became apparent last night was that Goblin’s score for Suspiria is a pretty unique one (just in case you didn’t already know) that works well not only within the context of the film, but outside of the film, too. Yes, it arguably dominates proceedings, but thanks to Argento’s opulent direction – and the fact that everything about Suspiria is the antithesis of subtle - the score feels perfectly at home in what is one of the most excessive and overwhelming horror films ever produced.


The opening death scene, in which a young woman is pursued through the forest to a vast and terrifyingly geometrical house, only to be wrenched through a window, stabbed repeatedly and then hung by her unseen attacker who drops her through a massive ornate stained glass window in the ceiling, is more akin to what is expected at the climax of a horror film. Seeing this scene with the score performed live was one of the most intense experiences this writer has ever endured. When the scene ends, and the music stops, you could almost hear the audience breathe a collective sigh of relief. And this was just the beginning of the evening...


Earlier this week I was invited to talk about horror film scores – specifically Suspiria’s - with local broadcaster and journalist Peter McCaughan, for a segment on BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra programme. You can listen to it here for another few days.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Don't Look Now

1973
Dir. Nicolas Roeg

Based on the short story of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now is from a collection of stories revolving around the intrusion of the supernatural/paranormal upon the lives of everyday, normal people. Released on a double bill with The Wicker Man – whose protagonist’s death is, in hindsight, also very much pre-conceived - Don’t Look Now ripples forth as a devastating and often terrifying study of grief. When their young daughter drowns in a pond in the family garden, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), attempt to come to terms with their loss and reconcile their relationship by travelling to Venice. John throws himself into his work and denies the possibility that their daughter could be trying to communicate with them from the afterlife. After befriending a spooky psychic and her sister, Laura opens herself up to the possibility that their daughter is trying to reach out to them from beyond the grave. But why? Ghost-like, the couple drift apart in the labyrinthine limbo of Venice, their family unit as shattered as the narrative is to become – with the city’s watery foundations serving as a constant reminder of their daughter’s fate.

While it reflects upon themes such as predestination, misinterpretation, fate, and cause and effect, the primary focus of Don’t Look Now – aside from unsettling the audience in the most subtle way imaginable - is the fragmenting psychology of the couple. The audience follows them as their relationship frays and unravels through a visually resplendent and rich narrative full of recurring themes and motifs, of which the colour red becomes increasingly significant, coming to the fore as a harbinger of something devastating yet to happen. Their daughter wore a red raincoat when she drowned; someone in a red hooded coat flits through the shadows of Venice by night. The mist enshrouded, labyrinthine streets of Venice are a character in their own right. A cold, damp, deteriorating city full of crumbling beauty and rife with moral corruption; its very foundations are submerged in water, highlighting the collapse of John and Laura’s relationship. Roeg films the city in such a way as to highlight its bewitching, eerie atmosphere. He films it through the eyes of a stranger, capturing a lesser seen Venice; damp, decaying and pregnant with menace. ‘Venice in Peril’ signs can be glimpsed in the background of various shots, and the blind clairvoyant who befriends Laura remarks: “Venice is like a city in aspic. My sister hates it. She says it's like after a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone. Too many shadows” – serving to heighten the city’s likeness to a Necropolis. Indeed, the character of Inspector Longhi also comments: “The skill of police artists is to make the living appear dead”, reiterating the film’s preoccupation with death. The mounting sense of dread and unavoidable doom that is slowly and beautifully evoked literally seeps throughout.

If the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?

Nothing is as it seems.
We learn that a serial killer stalks the streets after dark and, while their exploits aren't the focus of the narrative, the story is haunted by their presence - police are spotted dusting for fingerprints and John’s panic when he believes his wife is missing, serve as reminders of the grisly goings-on. It becomes apparent that the paths of this mysterious killer and the couple will eventually cross. We see bodies being dragged from the murky water; indeed water takes on a completely sinister quality in Don’t Look Now. Usually associated with birth, cleansing and purification, here, in the form of Venice’s dank canals, it conceals corpses, corruption and death.



The way in which Don’t Look Now is edited, works to actively disorientate the viewer and further compliment the themes of precognition. With the various flash-forwards and flashbacks John experiences throughout the narrative, proceedings are lent a fragmented feel – this is a film that rewards with every viewing. Time and space are disordered, at one stage Roeg even gives us a glimpse of the book Laura is reading – “Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space” – and as events unfurl, time, space and reality are shown to be connected in ways that are not always immediately apparent. A few times throughout, John admits to a feeling of Déjà vu, unaware of the true implications of these experiences. He is lost, suspended in time. Venice itself seems to exist in a place ‘beyond space’ where people get lost, wander around, double back on themselves, stumble across places that ‘seem familiar’ before they end up right back where they began. The scene where John and Laura are attempting to find their way back to the hotel after dinner and are wandering along dark alleys, creepy canal-ways full of echoes and threats, really exploits the city’s maze-like structure. It’s a brooding limbo constructed of menacing spaces and one which renders the grieving couple ‘strangers in a strange land.’

The opening scene, depicting Christine’s death, features seamlessly synchronous and associative inter-cuts throughout, scattering visual clues to events that have not yet happened. We’re fed images but are not always sure of what they mean or what order they've been seen in. The film opens with rain falling on a pond, hinting at the dark events that will flow throughout the rest of the film, instantly establishing the predilection with cause and effect, fate and predestination. Flashbacks, memories and premonitions pepper the narrative, creating an effect akin to gradually piecing together the parts of a scattered jigsaw puzzle.



With its focus on a middle aged couple and their attempts to rebuild their lives after the death of their daughter – Don’t Look Now is not your typical horror film. With compelling performances from Sutherland and Christie, and Roeg’s arresting direction and editing, the story builds slowly, and at times utterly chillingly, to a bloody, shocking and poignant denouement that ranks as one of the most hauntingly powerful in all of horror cinema.