Tuesday 31 May 2011

Antichrist (2009)

ANTICHRIST is a psychological drama that was written and directed by Lars von Trier in 2009.  It is a co-production involving finance from a number of countries but can be regarded, for sake of argument, as a Danish film.  It stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as couple who, after the accidental death of their infant son, retreat to their holiday cottage in a remote forest.  They attempt to deal with her all-consuming grief but she becomes increasingly erratic and eventually violent in her behaviour.

I'll come right out and admit to a considerable dislike of Lars von Trier.  To me he is the cinema equivalent of Banksy: a prankster rather than an artist, whose attention-grabbing style masks a lack of substance, and who is feted by the self-consciously hip.  He seems incapable of making a film without some sort of gimmick: the empty soundstage of DOGVILLE (2003) and MANDERLAY (2005), the artificial Dogme 'purity' of THE IDIOTS (1998), the stunt casting of DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) and the explicit sex and violence of ANTICHRIST.  Worse still, he seems unable to work without deliberately drawing attention to himself: if he's not proclaiming himself to be the "best director in the world" in one press conference, he's declaring himself to be a Nazi in another.

What I dislike about such things is that they lead me to believe von Trier isn't really interested in film at all but is solely interested in causing a stir, ruffling feathers and generally making a nuisance of himself.  I would find such behaviour intensely annoying in an adolescent child; in a grown man I find it bewildering and dispiriting.  He is quoted as having said "Film should be like a stone in shoe".  Quite why he believes that I have no idea.  I personally have no wish to have a stone in my shoe, literally or metaphorically.  I'm all in favour of films that challenge the viewer but not for it's own sake; if I'm to be challenged then the rewards of accepting that challenge must be significant and, for me, the substance of von Trier's films simply is not.

ANTICHRIST is a case in point.  It is unsettling, sombre and oppressive - and that's before the wanking, violence, talking foxes and mutilation begin.  What is von Trier challenging us to do?  To sit unblinking through some very tough scenes?  If so, to what end?  It surely can't be to make the facile point that sex and death are inextricably linked.  It surely can't be to reinforce the message that grief, pain and despair are powerful feelings and that therapy is ineffective in treating them.  It surely can't be that men and women are destined to be forever locked into a simultaneously love-hate relationship?
Who knows, because von Trier has chosen to make his film as impenetrable as possible.  The irony is that the film's explicit imagery is matched only by the vagueness of its message.

That said, some of the imagery and cinematography is undeniably beautiful.  I also appreciated the depiction of mental frailty and attempts to treat it, although I disagree with the implication that therapy is ineffective and perhaps even damaging.  The acting is a game of two halves: Dafoe is good but Gainsbourg just doesn't have the same acting chops.  She's game - totally committed - I'll give her that but I didn't find her convincing.

So another instance then of a von Trier film which generates enormous amounts of coverage, comment and controversy and yet has less to it than meets the eye.

Monday 30 May 2011

Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003)

A direct sequel to his earlier JU-ON (2002), this finds Takashi Shimizu offering us more of the same brand of chills, shocks and guttural throat noises.  Unwisely though he clearly felt he had to up the ante with the result that the film feels less together than the previous one and more a succession of set pieces.  The spectres are seen more often, and earlier, thereby reducing their impact.  Recognising this, Takashi gives them new powers - like the ability to crawl across ceilings or rise up through the floor.  The net effect of which is to make the apparitions seem less like hateful but tragic ghosts and more like indestructible franchise super-villains, a la Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.  The nadir is reached when one character gives birth to a full grown female spectre, which proceeds to butcher all the nurses.

In summary, JU-ON 2 is to JU-ON as THE FLY 2 is to THE FLY.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Superstition (1982)

SUPERSTITION is an American haunted house movie that was directed by James W. Roberson in 1982 and stars James Houghton, Albert Salmi, Larry Pennell and Jacquelyn Hyde (which sounds to me like a phoney in-joke name).  It's about a house which has a long history of death attached to it on account of the witch who was drowned in the garden pond in the 17th century but not before placing a curse on the spot where she was put to death.

If all that sounds corny then it is.  For SUPERSTITION is a prime example of movie-making at its most cynically commercial.  It shamelessly rips off countless better movies, chucks in a couple of pretty girls in bikinis and hot pants, and tries to cover up its inadequacies with some gruesome death scenes.  It doesn't seek to genuinely frighten you, it seeks to entertain you and, if you're prepared to accept it on those terms, then it is reasonably successful.

It's certainly never dull.  It only runs for just over 80 minutes and in that time manages to wipe out an entire family, a few coppers, a couple of dumb teenagers and at least three men of the cloth.  There are deaths by microwave, window frame, mirror, circular saw, wine press and a good old fashined stake through the face.  There's also a shonky flashback sequence to 1692 which includes a curate who looks like Rasputin and a witch whose faces pulses and throbs in a manner which Manimal might have found disturbing.

Roberson only made a handful of features and while I usually point this out as a tragedy in his case it is something of a blessing.  It appears that he went on to a busy career as director of photography on a seemingly endless number of US TV series, including THE KING OF QUEENS and Melissa Joan Hart's MELISSA AND JOEY, on which he presumably swapped witch stories with the leading lady.

The cast isn't particularly interesting apart from Albert Salmi, a veteran character actor who appeared in a good number of quality films, particularly westerns, as well as innumerable TV episodes.  Tragically, Salmi suffered from depression in later life and shot himself in 1990, after apparently shooting dead his wife from whom he was separated.

Ju-On (2002)

JU-ON is a Japanese horror film that was directed by Takashi Shimizu in 2002.  It was one of several Japanese horror films that were enormously popular in Asia and enjoyed some success in the West.  The biggest were even afforded the dubious honour of being remade as English-language features.

JU-ON is translated as "grudge" which seems a rather trivial word to describe the film's central idea of the ripples of malevolence and hate which spread out across time from the unquiet spirits of those who have met a violent end.  It's a great conceit and one which is well served by the unusual structure Takashi employs to tell his story.  The film is divided into chapters, each with its own title, telling the story of a particular person who has come into contact with the grudge.  The chapters jump around in time and it's not immediately apparent how they relate to each other; but they do, so stick with it.

In my experience, Japanese horror (or J-horror) is distinct from modern Western (particularly American) horror films in that it is more concerned with subtle, insidious ghost stories rather than dreary tales about masked lunatics slicing up over-sexed teenagers.  Indeed, the victims in J-horror tend to be rather ordinary folk - social workers, policemen, housewives, school kids - which not only makes their interaction with the supernatural seem of greater significance but also makes their demise have greater impact.

Similarly, the J-horror doesn't rely on violence or gore to provide its shocks.  In fact there really isn't any violence in JU-ON.  Most of the horror comes from fleeting shots of the spectres or, worse still, the unnatural sounds which presage their appearance.  The violence which brought the grudge into being is referred to but never shown or even described; it's a cliche I know but leaving it ambiguous means the viewer has to imagine for himself what might have happened and usually one can dream up something far worse than the film-makers.

I like films that ask the viewer to fill in the gaps, that take risks with leaving things ambiguous.  You may have noticed from my reviews that one of my bugbears in films is dreadful expository sequences: not only do they slow the film down but, to me, they represent failure.  What I mean by that is a failure on the part of the director (or screenwriter) to tell the story effectively.  If you've got to the last twenty minutes of a film without really knowing what's going on (and I don't mean whodunnit) then something has gone wrong.  My other problem is that expository sequences represent an adherence to the prevailing belief, certainly in Hollywood, that a film has to make sense and tell a conventional story in a conventional way.  In my experience, the best films - the ones that stay in the memory longest - tend to be those which contain ambiguities or uncertainties, and thereby promote discussion.

Equinox (1970)

EQUINOX is an American horror film that was released in 1970.  It has an interesting production history which sets it apart from many other low budget pictures that were made in the same period.

It began life as a short, directed by a Californian student called Dennis Muren, who also did his own special effects.  It was seen and admired by a small independent film production company, Tonylyn Productions, who picked it up for distribution.  Tonylyn's head honcho Jack H. Harris hired Jack Woods, a local film editor, to shoot some extra footage to bring the short up to feature length.  The resultant film is the version that is most widely seen today.

The film tells the story in flashback of how a young man came to be a patient in an asylum.  He and three friends had been summoned to the remote log cabin of their college professor.  Upon arriving, however, they find the cabin destroyed and the professor missing.  While searching for him in the woods they come across a deranged old hermit who presses upon them an ancient book, which turns out to be a manual of demonology.  Eventually they realise that the professor had been attempting to summon and control all manner of demons but that his experiments had gone terribly wrong.  They are forced to battle against these summoned monsters, and a malevolent park ranger who wants the book, to try to get to safety.

In itself it's not very good.  The acting is terrible for one thing: only one of the four main characters went on to have anything like a career in front of the camera, so it's pretty amateurish stuff.  The script is patchy: there are some exchanges that are actually quite decent - particularly the ribbing between the four friends - but falls down badly in several clunky expository passages.  At one point towards the end of the film, Dave the hero says "Wait a minute!  That park ranger, Mr Asmodeus - that's another name for the Devil!"  You can tell that the film was directed by an effects guy because the attention to detail in other areas is poor.  For instance, the two female characters are almost identical: their hair, costumes, even the colours of their costumes, are similar.  So much so that you can only tell them apart because one screams more than the other.  On top of everything else the continuity is also pretty slack, with an alarming number of glaring lapses.

The special effects are mixed too.  Some are quite good: the matte work, for example, the simple but effective wall of invisibility, and the genuinely creepy giant caveman.  The stop-motion animation is not so good.  Willis O'Brien and, later, Ray Harryhausen had led the way in this field for many years so Muren's efforts look painfully second-rate.  In actual fact it's not the animation so much as the model making: both the giant ape creature and the winged demon are poorly executed.

However, the film is imaginative and ambitious.  It does somehow manage to create a believable environment where the nightmare creatures from another dimension have intruded into our world.  The film-makers clearly have talent although that talent was stretched painfully thin by the demands of overseeing every aspect of a film production.  Which is probably why Dennis Muren went on to specialise in effects work.  He is responsible for some of the most famous effects in cinema history, having worked on STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T., INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK.  Jack Woods (who also plays Mr Asmodeus) became a sound editor and, like Muren, worked on some very big movies including a couple of the STAR TREK films.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Ganja and Hess (1973)

GANJA AND HESS was written and directed by (and co-stars) Bill Gunn in 1973.  It stars Duane Jones (best known as the hero of George Romero's landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)) as Dr Hess Green, a wealthy academic who is stabbed with an ancient African dagger by his assistant George Mada, who then commits suicide.  After the incident Hess finds that he has contracted a disease with symptoms similar to vampirism.  To compound his problems, Mrs Ganja Mada (Marlene Clark) arrives demanding to know where her husband is.

GANJA AND HESS is a difficult film for several reasons.  First off, until recently it was very difficult to get hold of.  Second, if you did manage to get hold of it, as I did, it was usually in a severely cut form which more or less ruined it.  Third, it is deliberately slow-paced and there is little incident.  That third reason is perhaps the most important because GANJA AND HESS has often been lumped in with the blaxploitation films of the 1970s - because it was produced by and concerns black people - and also with the horror genre - because of the vampirism angle.  In actual fact those categorisations, while understandable, are not a particularly good fit for GANJA AND HESS, which is a world away from, say, SHAFT (1971) or THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1974).  It has the grainy look of an experimental feature and the social and emotional concerns of John Cassavetes.  That said there are undeniably horror elements that call to mind other oblique genre films, such as George Romero's MARTIN (1978), which deals with a disturbed young man who may or may not be a vampire, and Harry Kumel's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971), in its depiction of vampiric desire. 

Gunn's concerns in GANJA AND HESS are not vampires per se, but the idea of preying upon others.  Hess is shown to be a respected but aloof man who seems distanced from his ethnic roots, surrounding himself with the trappings of the white upper-middle class and even employing a black butler.  Ganja is a woman who having experienced a troubled childhood has become determined to do whatever it takes to survive.  Therefore when she learns Hess's secret she uses it to what she considers to be her advantage.  The two characters, now linked by their shared 'disease', feed off other marginalised characters - black and white - for sustenance.  So the film is perhaps less a celebration of black identity than a critique of the extent to which ethnic minorities are perhaps too ready to prey upon themselves, while at the same time understanding that their often limited opportunities give them no alternative.  It could also be argued that the ancient African dagger that spreads the disease is a metaphor for the curse of being of an African-American in modern US society.

It's an interesting and unusual film then but it's not easy to like.  There are some sequences which go on far too long - sermons at the volunteer church, for instance - and the lack of any sympathetic characters is alienating.  However, the acting is terrific, which is unusual for a semi-experimental low-budget production.  Some of the cinematography too is good - particularly the exteriors - but the interiors are very dimly lit and consequently rather ugly.

I've lost count of the number of times on this blog that I have had to bemoan the fact that directors of quality films have had painfully short careers.  Bill Gunn directed only one more project after this but enjoyed some critical success as a playwright.  He died in 1989, aged just 54.  Duane Jones , despite appearing in two landmark genre movies, also had a short career in acting but became a drama teacher and champion of ethnic theatre.  He too died young, in 1988 aged 52.  Marlene Clark on the other hand had a long and varied career in film and television, including some fondly remembered genre movies including SLAUGHTER (1972), ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) and the daft British horror THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974).

Sunday 22 May 2011

Hausu (1977)

HAUSU is a Japanese horror / comedy / teen movie that was directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi in 1977.  It is known in the west as HOUSE (not to be confused with the 1986 US Steve Miner / William Katt horror movie of the same name).  It's about a bunch of teenage schoolgirls - Oshare, Fanta, Melody, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac and Gari - who spend their summer vacation at a house in the countryside, owned by Oshare's aunt.  The aunt and her house turn out to be less welcoming than the girls imagined.

Our heroines
A simple enough summary you might think.  Maybe even a bit ordinary.  But HAUSU is one of the most bizarre films I have seen: it's not only the things that happen but also the array of visual techniques used to present them.  There are musical sequences, animation, shonky special effects, very good special effects, split screen, breaking of the fourth wall and all manner of editing tricks. The Japanese love of popular culture is reflected in the imagery and style, which encompasses at least four or five different genres.  The tone lurches from playful to sentimental to cynical to brutal at the drop of a hat.

This sequence is a good indication of the playful nature of the film: 1) bus drops off girls in front of obviously fake background ...

2) Bus drives off to reveal even more obviously fake background ...

3) Which they are then shown standing in front of!

All of which leaves the viewer dazzled, confused, annoyed and at times thoroughly entertained.  But its enormous verve and imagination is also its weakness because the film never settles down which ultimately becomes rather wearing.  It's a bit like watching THE BANANA SPLITS or THE MONKEES for an hour and a half, which given that those shows only ran for 30 minutes, is asking too much of this viewer.

Mac's disembodied head bites her friend on the arse

Aunty dances with a skeleton

Melody's fingers are bitten off by the carnivorous piano

Don't ask me what's going on here
I should own up to having a real problem with horror-comedy films.  They're never funny enough and they're never horrifying enough; and unless they get it absolutely spot on each element undercuts the other.  In the whole history of cinema the only film I can think of that made me laugh out loud and frightened the wits out of me is John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).  Over a hundred years of movies and only once has the horror-comedy been done right.  That's how hard it is.

Oh and don't give me SHAUN OF THE DEAD.  That's a comedy which happens to be about zombies.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

The Mother of Tears (2007)

THE MOTHER OF TEARS is a supernatural horror film directed by Dario Argento in 2007.  It stars Dario's daughter Asia Argento, alongside Christian Solimeno, Adam James, Philippe Leroy, the patron saint of delirious actors Udo Kier, and Dario's ex-wife (and Asia's mother) Daria Nicolodi.  It is the much-delayed third film in his 'Three Mothers' trilogy and was released in Italy under the title "The Third Mother".

Dario Argento is perhaps the most critically acclaimed and widely known Italian director of genre movies.  His fame chiefly rests on a string of gialli and horror movies made between 1970 and 1987.  They are renowned above all for their directorial flair, stunning design and inventive set-pieces.  Argento's career has declined sharply since 1987 following the release of several uninspired movies which have diluted his once untouchable reputation.  These days the release of a new Argento film is greeted with indifference by the public, and trepidation by his devoted fans.

Hands are a key image in the giallo, and Argento's films in particular
The announcement that Argento was to make the much rumoured third film in the 'Three Mothers' trilogy provoked a mixed reaction.  SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980) are two of Argento's most fondly remembered films and in some ways encapsulate his entire ouevre.  Some believed that on current form Argento was bound to make a stinker which could never live up to its two predecessors and that he should leave well alone.  Others felt that a return to old, familiar ground might inspire Argento to recapture his best form.

The reality is that there is an element of truth in both of those opinions.  THE MOTHER OF TEARS is probably Argento's best film since TRAUMA (1993) but is nevertheless a long way short of the quality of INFERNO, let alone SUSPIRIA.  It is confirmation, if it were needed, that the skill and verve which Argento once possessed in abundance is gone, almost certainly never to return.

Your 21st century witch travels by plane, not broomstick, and wheels her own luggage
Argento's dazzling cinematic flair often made up for narrative incoherence.  He was less interested in the convolutions of his plots than he was in the potential for show stopping set-piece sequences that those plots afforded him.  At his best, probably in SUSPIRIA, these set-pieces actually became the narrative thereby transcending the traditional Hollywood model and creating a new method of story telling which was uniquely suited to the depiction of nightmares.

The problem with THE MOTHER OF TEARS is that being the third film in a trilogy it imposes upon Argento a lot of backstory which means that he is more or less forced down a particular narrative route, thereby denying him the opportunity to indulge in one-off set pieces.  On the contrary, he is instead obliged to insert several clunky expository sequences for the benefit of viewers who haven't seen or can't remember the first two movies.

The great Udo Kier, expositing like mad

It's a great pity to have to report that the film resembles many dull modern American horror films in that, ironically, it only comes to life when dealing with death.  There are several impressively gruesome deaths, at times bordering on distasteful, but that's all they are.  It's about the worst insult one can imagine to say that this Argento film is anonymous, in that it could have been directed by anybody.

Monday 16 May 2011

The Butterfly Murders (1979)

THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS was directed by Tsui Hark in 1979 and was released in Hong Kong under the title 'Die ban'.  It stars Siu Min Lau, Michelle Mai and Shu Tang Wong and is an example of the wuxia genre which is exteremly popular in the East, by which I mean China, not Norfolk.

I suppose wuxia can be described very generally as the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese samurai genre, which in turn means it is broadly comparable to the American western in its adherence to an ostensibly heroic martial code.  Think of pretty much any Clint Eastwood western, or the bunch of hired hands - each with their own unique skills - in Richard Brooks' THE PROFESSIONALS, and you'd be right on the money.  Honour comes into it too but not to the extent of the unquestioning loyalty of the samurai.

I'd be lying if I said I totally understood the plot of this movie.  I think it has something to do with a cold war among some 72 different clans that are seeking to usurp the overlord who maintains a fragile peace in a region of (I think) medieval China.  This boss replies to a request for aid from an obscure acquaintance whose castle is beseiged by hordes of killer butterflies.  They arrive to find the castle apparently deserted, save for a terrified deaf mute servant girl and a young scribe who is trying to find out who has been selling forged documents purporting to be his work.

There's loads going on and the (English-speaking) viewer's task of figuring it all out isn't made any easier by the fact that the subtitles are in pidgin English and sometimes disappear before you've had time to read them, due to Hark's often abrupt cutting.

There is also a weird soundtrack that veers from a gruesomely sentimental theme song to electronic bleeps and warbles, which are used to indicate characters using their special abilities (that function almost as super powers).  The dubbing, it almost goes without saying, is atrocious in both of the foreign languages (Mandarin and Cantonese) on my DVD.  And the acting is as big as you might imagine.

But these are standard elements in Asian genre movies so you shouldn't really consider them to be faults.  Okay, they are not how we prefer our films to be in the west but when watching foreign cinema you have to approach it on its own terms.  Consequently, I really enjoyed it.  It's a rollicking adventure with trapdoors, hidden catacombs, sword fights, fist fights, kung fu fights, great sets and locations, great costumes and some neat special effects.

The famous gravity-defying fight sequences in better-known films such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS have their roots in films such as this.

Asian genre directors are becoming more known to western audiences these days, a process which started with Kurosawa but in more recent times was picked up by John Woo.  Tsui Hark is perhaps a little unlucky that he never really became well known internationally.  He certainly has the skills: some of the visuals here are really terrific - such as the entire castle draped in nets to defend against the butterflies.

As usual, it took western audiences a long time to cotton on to the quality of some Asian genre cinema and by the time they did, Hark had been overtaken by directors like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou.  They are all of similar ages but Hark started his career a lot earlier (this being his debut feature) and so perhaps became identified, wrongly, as being of an older generation.  He's supremely talented though and if you've never heard of him this would be a fine place to start putting that right.

Hi, it's me, I'm back. This is the central scrutinizer.

Hello folks.  I'm back on board after a short break.  Okay, quite a long break in actual fact.  But it hasn't entirely been downtime.  I watched the whole KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER box set, for one thing.  And great fun it is too.

But back to the movies.  Tomorrow will see a brand new review, of Tsui Hark's utterly delirious and quite brilliant wuxia THE BUTTERFLY MURDERS.  And by way of a taster, here's a still which demonstrates how that title is meant literally.

See you back here tomorrow!