Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Didn't you torture my bruvver?: Antipodean horror movies of recent times

Britain had one of the earliest working fiction film industries. We did, too. It worked like a Trojan up to the mid 60s. Same here. Then it slowly disintegrated. Ditto. But the quality that had been there turned up unexpectedly on the small screen. Er ... that didn't happen here.

UK tv from the 50s to the mid 90s boasts some of the best ever committed to the medium: great comedy, a kind of unforgiving toughness, sheer world leading style and, when it wanted to, a kind of creeping horror made of location, atmosphere, good acting and the kind of writing more usually found between two hard covers. Minds like that of Nigel Kneale saw to it that ideas could travel as effectively as the alien DNA in one of the earliest examples of alien invasion that needed nary a metre of tin foil costuming. All those concepts needed was a bit of video production and hey presto stories to entertain and disturb. None of this ended up on the big screen apart from a few adaptations from the tv originals. And don't bother citing Hammer movies. They have their fans but they are too ... campy and bright for me.

Lately, the industry (such as it is in that gem set in the silver sea) has been producing scarefests meant for the cinema. Here are a few I've taken in.

A yuppie couple head out to the lush green and pleasant forest for a camping holiday before it gets developed into a concrete slab. A bunch of untamed youths set up nearby and act like right yahoos. While our heroes are splashing about in the paradisical lake o' the title our young chavs are busy vandalising the yup-mobile and nicking what they can. Discovering this on their return, the male of the two upwardly mobile ones decides to confront the hooligans who meet them with feigned ignorance. Little by little the two parties build a case against each other until it's guerilla warfare home counties style and everyone's a potential victim.

The makers of this film would only celebrate comparisons to Deliverance, Last House on the Left etc and feel honoured to be placed in that tradition. Deserved? Why not? All of these films centre on the violence of survival when the cloak of civilisation is torn off. Whether it's inbred hillbillies, Mansonish manipulators or bored unsupervised teenagers the idea that these bipedal dangers walk among us and could stab into our veneer of order at any moment. And then where would we be? Dead or fighting like savages is the usual answer. There's nothing particularly flawed about this argument at this level, scratch a yuppie and find a bogan, but the differences between outings lies in the depth of what this might mean.

In Deliverance the milquetoasts and weekend warriors from the city are shown where their status as citizens end and the test of their manhood begins. For all the machismo of the Burt Reynolds character on screen it's the perceived failure of Ned Beatty's tenderfoot fat man that strikes the hardest. Burt's always going to be ready to come back with a slammin' right hook. Ned in the world of the film can really only exist in the support system of the urban sward. His humiliation (which kickstarts the narrative proper) is what is meant to anger audiences but at the same time it's an example many in the seats would have savoured in the dark of the cinema. Deliverance's power derives from this contrary motion resolved in Reynold's heroism. No one needs to see the Vietnam parallells but they are there in spades.

Last House on the Left is both more complex and goofier than Deliverance but its points are still strong. The long first two acts follow a group of hippies closer to the Manson family than the Mamas and the Pappas. Krug, charismatic and bored, uses the people around him for his amusement, manipulating them to all kinds of atrocities including finally murder. The final act is the revenge of the relatives of the deceased which is where the civilisation is stripped and sheer bloody fury is loosed. Even though there is a confusion of themes here (are we meant to share the outrage against the hippies? are we meant to laugh ironically at the bourgeois couple turning feral?) the themes are yet there on the screen. Eden Lake doesn't suffer from a thematic problem.

That's because outside of a premise, Eden Lake doesn't have a theme. It doesn't have much beyond a series of payoffs and a subversion of survivalist horror films at the end. There are some well observed moments of peer pressure which carry the added weight of atrocity. After the ordeal, the terror, the violence, torture and suspense there seems less point to this film than the other examples I've given here. Bad things happen, says Eden Lake. I knew that.

If Eden Lake seemed well made and pointless, Mum and Dad goes one step further and demotes the "well made" to competent.

Lena the Clena from Poland misses her bus one night and can't get back from the airport where she scrubs the loos. A smoko mate, Birdie says she can put the Pole up for the night and lives but a walk away. Home is a domestic prison with a knockoff Fred and Rosemary West except the two kids are in on it as well. There's a human abattoir downstairs and a cellar full of stolen goods. What do we do for depth? Well, what about having the victim come across ... kind of ... but still have enough in her to revolt at the end if she needs to.

What would make her revolt?

Have we tried cross dressing yet?  Dad cross dressing. And she has to do it with him.

Ok, put that in then. Have we done dismembered but still alive? How about hanging on the wall?

Yes! Oh, at Christmas! Do it then. Like a decoration!

Half a bloke nailed to the wall in a santa hat! Still squirming!

You're a genuis. What about wanking?

We're doing enough of that ourselves, mate.

Seriously, let's put some wanking in. No one shows that. We can shoot from behind if the actor's too self conscious.

How do we know it's wanking, then?

Shoot the jizz ... so to speak.

Right. Alright.

A shot of the jizz IN the liver he's just cut out of one of his victims!

How much are we paying you, again? Right. Let's set it up before it gets cold!

Sorry (it's me again) but all this film shows that its creators can think up nasty stuff. So can I. So can the average five year old. Schoolkids regularly do this while waiting for the teacher. It really only works when there's a point to it. The point of torture porn films like Hostel is getting to see self centered yuppies get their tongues drilled in. I can daydream that, too, but at least it's something.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Don't you bloody dare! TCM has a similar shock survival premise but crucially shows only as much as it needs so that its audience can do the rest. Imaginative audiences (ie pretty much all of them) are always going to make something worse than could ever be shown on screen. That's the real aesthetic crime of Mum and Dad. It seems to think the unrelenting graphic ghastliness is going to provide substance enough for all the great unwashed cor-blimeys out there in the dark. The effect isn't horrifying but bland. Oh, they're doing that now. Oh, they're trying that. Right. Ok. The problem is not that the gore and cruelty is confronting, it's that it's smug. Smugness has no place in horror. An effective horror film cannot afford to put anything between its audience and the screen. This is like almost every example of a non-genre filmmaker trying genre out; there's often a sense of them slumming it and throwing a bone to the audience now and then. It's like finding out the mark in a filmed practical joke was in on it. Blargh!

Mum and Dad starts, gets nasty, gets nastier and ends.  You've just lost 85 minutes of your life.

Hmmm. Better. Actually, a lot better.

A couple of small families get together for a weekend in the snowy country. One of the kids is ill. The others start acting odd then violent and become literal little terrors. Survival hijinks ensue.

Here's what's good about this film that the two above left out. There are characters to care about. The transition from happy holiday to nightmare is made in smooth and easy paces and never feels forced. The atrocities are variously aggravated accidents or believably childlike in conception. There is a recognisable allegory all the way through about the  unpleasantness of infection in childhood and how alarming it is to see something (even just colds) spread through school populations. Making the victims of infection the threat is not new, nor is rendering childhood innocence sinister, but having the two together pretty much is. The young chavs in Eden Lake are just uncontrolled yahoos. The kids in The Children are bound by microbes, monstrous, soured,  ruined. Ask any parent about the point where they lost the bond with one of their own, however briefly, and their account will be imaginably close to the events here.  See? All you need's a point.

This is more like it. Phillip Ridley who made the sustainably weird The Reflecting Skin makes few films. His other careers include childrens books, written and illustrated, as well as installation art. That might tell you that he has a taste for fable and its often gruesome innards. But three films in about twenty years is Terrence Malik territory. But instead of hours of screen time filled with botany and murmurs we get one of the most engaging pacts with the devil I've seen since Angelheart.

Jamie works as a photographer in his uncle's business but also goes out in his time off taking photos of the derelict buildings and odorous underpasses of his native London. Jamie has Britpop looks (Jim Sturgess) which are interrrupted by the heart shaped birthmark which covers half his face. One afternoon he takes a picture of a figure in a window which he can't explain. Returning to the scene later he finds a backlot teeming with demonic figures around a bonfire. Gang attacks are on the rise on the tv news, hoodies like these demons attacking people with molotov cocktails. One of the victims is his own mother whose death by fire he witnesses helplessly. Life could be better.

Through his extreme emotional state he is finding it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the cruelty of reality and the nightmarish ugliness of his visions. He is led to a hulked out towerblock where a scarred Cockney called Papa B trades him the beauty he ought to have for a few trivial favours. Jamie agrees and gets a full body burn for his compliance. Then again, when he emerges from his scars his face is clean. Life is beautiful. Well, we all know it isn't.

No spoilers here. You only got that much plot to indicate how much more work was done on this film than the others featured in this post. Ridley likes his realism magical and knows how that will always reveal something wicked if left to its own devices. But he also knows that the glories it promises can themselves be an uneasy mix of awe and horror. Jamie's pact with Papa B is a wish fulfillment and carries the cost they always demand.

Beauty and its capture, boredom and violence, lights and lightlessness, all of it adds up to the London where Phillip Ridley grew up and turned into a city of shopping and drunkenness. There is a little nostalgia here but more than that there is anger and seldom has that emotion been painted so seductively. Maybe this film shouldn't be in this post. While it does contain some generic elements it's far closer to being a fable, three wishes with the devil. But it should be here because it shows that a film can be British, new, inventive to the point where it's almost of its own tribe and yet still perfectly acceptable to the mainstream audience. It shows that good British film doesn't have to be a distillate of the glory years of British tv and it doesn't have to be as smug, try hard or as flat and charmless as Eden Lake or Mum and Dad (or for an example from our own shore, the abject hollowness of Wolf Creek) ... and still be a horror movie.

Out locally on dvd. See it if you can find it.

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