Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thirteen for Halloween

No, I haven't bought into the bend-over-for-the-empire practice of Americanising my October but I am a fool for any opportunity to make a list of horror films. This time, though, I'm going to do two, one for the horror-curious and another for those who just want the genre for the occasion.

While I as an Australian born and raised didn't experience Halloween as part of the calendar I knew about it from American shows and kind of envied the costumes and rituals. Most of all I liked the mood and always considered horror fiction nourishment for the imagination and I loved how even though I've never believed in ghosts I would be haunted awake in the pre dawn by the stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu. The Christmas tales from UK television added location and atmosphere. In the end I had to admit that I lived in the tropics which see neither snow nor fog and when there were human atrocities in the air they had the weight of close reality. Otherwise there were the movies and I never tire of the best of them nor discovering new avenues into the self-confrontation that genuine horror demands.

As you'll read, I'm biased toward originality and genre-warping but these qualities are by no means prerequisite for a good horror fiction experience. There's a lot of real cinema to be had with movies that just behave themselves in their margins and deliver what they say. There is, of course, a spectrum of how well this is done.

Hey, there's more than thirteen here! It rhymes with Halloween .. and count the genres in the second section

For non-horror fans...

Contemporary Mainstream
Wahhahahahahahahahahahahahaha! which
is the kind of dialogue I hear when I see
something like this.
Insidious and anything else by James Wan or anything like them. These scary-skull party decorations wear me out with their quiet quiet LOUD formula but for all their identikit nature they are at least reliable and you can talk over them as you won't be missing any suspense. Serve with the free-chicken-wing-and-family-size-softdrink deals from the nearest franchise pizza place. No concentration required and you won't retain a second of screen time to haunt you later. Examples, The Conjuring, Sinister and the godawful "Harry Potter and the Woman in Black".

There is a notion afoot that these are generationally restrictive so if you're too old you'll gurmpily reject them and if you're young enough you'll dig them. If that worked I'd prefer the 1982 Thing over the 1956 one and Friday the 13th over The Exorcist (wrong in both cases). Sorry, it's not me being old, it's these movies being mediocre.

But quite seriously, if you aren't into horror but want to use the occasion, these will work.


Remakes of 70s and 80s genre. It's often observed that it's only bad movies that should get remakes to correct the errors of the past. Instead, we get the errors of the present whose makers have learned nothing from the originals. You can count the as-good or better remakes on one hand. Like the contemporary Hollywood fare mentioned above, these are not taxing and have been declawed so that only the serviceable gore gets through and none of that disturbing concept work to bring things down.

Remakes of films originally in languages other than American. If you can't read subtitles you shouldn't be reading this. Seriously, if getting close to a good arresting idea is blocked for you by a series of titles in the most basic of English (as they have to be for speed alone) then all you can experience is a series of someone else's ideas at a cultural remove. Not it's not Let Me In but Let the Right One In. Not The Ring but Ringu (seriously, this one involves a major failure of interpretation when in English). Not Quarantine but .REC. The American version of Pulse has a line about the use of gaffer tape common to both films: "It just seems to work somehow." Why didn't anyone in Kyoshi Kurosawa's original have to say that? Because they wanted YOU to work it out. I have known no exceptions to this rule that didn't take a lot of indulgence and apology.

Would you really rather hear a note perfect cover band play your favourite songs or the original band? If the latter aren't available wouldn't you at least want some interpretation to be part of it rather than a re-enactment? You wouldn't? Fine, the remakes are over there. Let's just never talk about music.

Mainstream gothic
All the scares of the Ghost Train ride
Blade, Underworld, Mama, etc. All serviceable narrative pieces with a few scares and suspense but I find so much backstory really wetblankets a horror movie. It give its audience too much control over the events. The reason we wake up gasping from nightmares is precisely because we can't control them. But these usually have some fine art direction.

Horror Comedy
This is a good one. It's almost the only one.
The best one is Shaun of the Dead because it remembers to be scary as well as funny. The rest usually just give up and try to be funny but the best of them are good at that. Scream (keep it to the first one) Bad Taste, Beetlejuice are all fine examples. Word of advice: don't start with one of these if you are going down the party atmosphere path as it will make everyone take the piss out of everything else. That might sound great but it really gets fatiguing quickly and any return to appropriate mood will feel like someone turned the lights on. Try it last or after something that does have an effect. That works.

Well, that should do you. Or ....

For horror fans and the curious of heart...

Kairo/Pulse begins with social erosion as the online realm vacuums its users' lives which allows ghosts to spill over from existential intertia into a steadily scarier real world. The ghosts here aren't just scary, they're disturbing. If the dialogue is in English you are watching the wrong version: the real one is in Japanese. Tasssuketeeeeee....

See also Pontypool, Canadian slowburner is huge on atmosphere, character and cleverness. What's in a word?

Body Horror
Shivers gave David Cronenberg to the world. A science experiment gone wrong begets a sexually transmitted parasite in an isolated luxury highrise apartment complex. Genuinely disturbing ideas rise above the often hokey action and acting.

See also Audition, Takeshi Miike's nightmare of emotional distortion and ugly morality/body confusion will stay with you.

Found Footage
The Blair Witch Project is still the champ of this and deserves a look by anyone who has only heard of it and a new look for those who have seen it. If we follow we descend. The human imagination can be a bad place at the best of times but with only a little frustration turns into a constant nightmare.

See also .REC, best descendant of Blair Witch takes us from a rookie tv reporter's slow news night into a terryifiying enclosed hell. Brilliant ending you won't expect. If the ending of the first Paranormal Activity hadn't ruined the entire film with its bubblegum hokiness that would have been .REC's rival. But no.

Too many. It's a favourite sub genre. Hmmmm. Ok, Dark Water. Atmosphere and genuine tragedy provide solid support for a ghost story that will stay with you. If you think the coda scene is sweet give it a few minutes and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If Jennifer Connelly is in it you are watching the wrong version. This is a Japanese film.

See also Lake Mungo: local and vocal masterpiece. You will NOT expect the climactic scene. Did you see it? What did you see?

Quatermass and the Pit. One of the finest sci-fi minds of the mid twentieth century, Nigel Kneale, came up with this intriguer that like other greats of his takes narrative and thematic swerves you will not expect. Here it goes from possible unexploded German bombs in the London tube to human evolution. The locally released blu-ray is the same as the BFI, sensational.

See also Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had two remakes on a par but this original still feels like the best with its American dream gone wrong or horribly right.

I'd normally put the ol' Exorcist here but this time I'll go subtler and nominate Rosemary's Baby. Before Friedkin drained the last gothic drop from movies about cults and the Divil Polanski had a red hot go substituting naturalistic acting for histrionics and worrying ideas instead of shocks. Expert casting of Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes bring this one home as a believable couple and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the old couple across the hall whose urbanity and comedy are equally sinister. "What have you done to it's eyes?" What did they do? Well, good horror requires you to use your imagination which ought to be more powerful than anything on a screen.

Also, the only available dvd and blu-ray of the Exorcist are of the long and plodding "version you've never seen" which is the only one anyone after 2000 has seen. You can get the original in a deluxe package from overseas sources so, if you're interested, hold off until you can see the shorter, tighter and scarier one.

The Brotherhood of Satan. Low-budget big concepts as the children of a small town vanish and toys come horrifically to life. Youth and age clash in a kind of Lewis Carrol verite.

Short Form

It's a really good idea to ease the burden of the parade of features with shorter pieces and they don't come much more curious than this series of twelve found footage ambushes collectively known as The Forbidden Files (also, Les Documents Interdits, in case you're braving the waves, sleets and torrents to find them). SBS showed these in the 90s as part of their Saturday night shorts showcase Eat Carpet. They were originally shown unannounced on French cable tv. From true life ghost stories, alien incursion, witchcraft and much more these ingeniously use the short running time (mostly only a few minutes) to maximum effect, playing on our trust at the sight of what looks like raw footage. Also, try some of the shorter form fiction that used to appear on TV like Twilight Zone (particularly the hour long Thirty Fathom Grave) or the shorter BBC Mr James adaptations like Whistle and I'll Come to You or Lost Hearts.

Black Christmas is Bob Porky's Clark's jump start to the genre that would be planted in the 70s and take firm root in the 80s. Those phone calls!

See also Halloween (if it doesn't say 1978 somewhere in the details you are watching the wrong one).

Sui Generis
Lovely Molly sees half of the Blair Witch directorial team venture only a comfortable pace from the scene of his fame. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the internal crisis storming inside the central character rather than sudden scares adds depth and eeriness.

See also Martyrs which starts like any Euro revenge piece but takes a terrifying turn halfway through. The violence dissipates into control and the control has a disturbing force. I'll sing with Mark Kermode on this one, though: CAUTION! This is a VERY rough ride.

Martin: Is he a vampire or a very naughty boy? Either way, Martin is as confused and pissed off as any other teenager. How many of them ever wished they had the powers of mythical monsters? The generation gap doesn't get more poignant .... or bloody.

See also Lips of Blood:Jean Rollin's mix of perve and unnerve with a genuinely poignant ending to surprise.

Ginger Snaps. Lighten up the marathon with this still fresh take on lycanthropy. Whedonesque smarts mix with a welling real tragedy which emerges in a climax worthy of Cronenberg.

See also The Wolf Man: uses pathos rather than threat to suggest the pity of heredity but also the anger in response to it. Lon Chaney Jr might have had a few things on his mind about that issue playing this role.

Suspiria. The phrase style over substance is so pejorative that even as I put it here in order to twist it into a positive I hesitate. But with a palette determined by aggressive lighting and intentional use of old film stock, a massively powerful music score and enough tension and stark violence to fill several genre pieces, Suspiria's style IS its substance. Its relentless genuine nightmare logic is in force from the word go and is only weakened by a scene which attempts to explain the events and plant a telescope. Not for talking over but its 92 minutes don't allow that kinda malarky.

See also Black Sunday, Bava bravura in black and white with a mad eyed Barbara on the roam.

Romero's Night is one of my favourites but for freshness I'll go with Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Very pervy and very gory but also strongly atmospheric. Aka Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi(e) 2.

See also Colin for a very British take that intrigues.

So, happy happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Nick Dunne is still young but already jaded about marriage and the one he is part of. He goes to while away a few hours with his twin sister  at the bar they run and to bitch about things like anniversary presents. After a few too many whiskeys and board games he gets back home to signs of a struggle and an absence of his wife. He calls the cops. They suspect him. As the evidence piles up and his overbearing inlaws impose upon his small town community the finger is pointed his way. Intercut with this are flashbacks and diary entries by the missing person/deceased that also get dark 'n' nasty. Does he have a name left to clear?

This story has too many spoilers to go further than that. Something that isn't a spoiler is that this is a David Fincher film so there is a whole lotta filmmakin' goin' on.

At one point in this film a character comments that calling a bar The Bar is very meta. To do that in a David Fincher film is cute enough but Gone Girl is not Fight Club or Social Network so instead of folding itself into the general metafest the line scrubs up as meta as we are aware we are watching a David Fincher film. The line is played throwaway but is key to getting to know this piece about personae public and private and that most strident of personality tests: marriage.

As a probable meta comment on this Fincher has shot big and clean this time. The silver retention shadow detail and grime-on-the-Rolex-band of everything he's done with an urban setting is absent here. And apart from some fancy footwork of the flash back and forth of the present timeline and diary scenes is kept in strict reign with titling and narration. Everything plays up front and fair. So you know there's a lot hiding in the light.

At two hours and twenty minutes Gone Girl never bores but does keep to a leisurely novelistic pace that might make Fight Club fans  restless. The pace can be wearyingly even. It can, at times, feel like three episodes of a tv series  sewn together. Then again, the evenness is clearly deliberate. It gives us a constant examiner's eye view of the events (and some do demand close inspection).

Also, it allows us time to appreciate some of the strongest film acting we will be seeing all year with everyone on screen going beyond the call. We are led into some finely wrought duplicity and are often compelled to believe accounts that we might otherwise resist and that is good reading of good writing, pure and simple. There is one moment in particular (the only detail I'll give is creme brulee) in which two characters separated by the intimate distance of a tv screen reach a perfect allignment. We don't expect it but unlikely as it would be if played poorly, we don't doubt it for a moment.

So, while my sense memory still complains about unnecessary length the delight I take in re-examining the evidence as laid so patiently out by Fincher and co resonates. We love our fictions, even those thrust upon us, but then we are compelled to.