Friday, October 23, 2015

13 for Halloween 2015

Insert usual blurb about celebrating Halloween in your own style rather than bending over for the empire and doing it the American way. That aside, one thing I like about Halloween as a contemporary folk feast night is its association with the horror genre. Here are some suggestions for a film night on October the 31st. This year I've gone for energy. That doesn't always just equate to action but can mean the sprightliness of the ideas. Oh and running times on the shorter side.

Derivative but uses what it likes about the legacy rather than just copies. Disregard shallow criticism that the real revival here is the 80s teen horror sex=death. It's far more about wisdom=responsibility. But even more, it's about good fun with good scares and music that gets away with being retro.

Set almost entirely on a single computer screen, this messenger revenge tale transcends its occasional cheesiness by its deep comprehension of what compels the characters to stay glued to their screens. Clever, but not so clever that it isn't rivetting.

Big, brash, beatiful and baroque, Dario Argento's masterpiece eschews complex plotting for a viscerally true evocation of a nightmare state. The only time it sags is when it gets characters to explain the events but even then it's not for long. And that music!

Still one of the scariest, best edited and least bloody of all the slashers, John Carpenter's classic still grips and torments. Carpenter's own score was heavily influenced by Argento's use of Goblin and Friedkin's use of Tubular Bells in The Exorcist but this is something he really made his own.

RINGU (1997)
Try to forget about the big bloated U.S. remake which added a needless hour to the story. Hideo Nakata's original remains the superior piece. The pacing is more astute and the climactic moment far more terrifying for being less bombastic than the cover version. Also with a good hands-off music score.

Based closely on the Shirley Jackson source novel, Robert Wise's film version keeps the atmosphere forward and remembers that the real chills come from the central tragedy unfolding around the character of Eleanor. Vintage special effects still effective. Compare that with the gormless 1999 version which doesn't get the difference between shock and suspense.

REC (2007)
Infection-zombie piece lifts from normality into a fever pitch and an ending you will not expect. Lean pov filmmaking reminds us how this approach can be used to enhance shifts in pace and, in the right hands, can prove a powerful creator of suspense, using what the audience/characters can and cannot see. Remade as Quarrantine but see the original: if it's in English you're watching the wrong version.

The time travel paradox examined to an unnerving degree in this ingenious take on circuit breaking. See it before the unecessary remake.

A very dark fable about the horrors of intimacy unfolds as young newlyweds pile into a country cabin for a few weeks of private ecstasy and communion with nature. That kind of happens but not how either is expecting. Some very tough scenes but worth it for the overall purpose which is serious (nice for a change) and steady.

ALIEN (1980)
Set a few tonal standards by making the fantastical setting workaday before the horror explodes. High action and white knuckle suspense make this a perennial winner. I still prefer this to the action movie sequel and any of the others after that. It's scarier if you never see the whole creature. And don't waste you time with Prometheus; it's steeped in a creepy religious agenda that only leads to clunkiness. The first one is the real deal.

The beauty of this one is that it mixes real eerieness so easily in with its nostalgia and keeps the pace high. One of the highly imaginative Don Coscarelli's most complete. "Boy!"

A hidden broadcast is making people grow new organs and is changing their brain chemistry. "What we see on television emerges as raw experience." A wow idea every few minutes with Cronenberg's early unnerving visual style and James Woods' magnetic central performance. Still weird, still wonderful.

One of all time favourite genre game changers. Blending the high-school social order, emo-anti-cool, and real wit, Ginger's plummet into the life of the beast is as funny as it is scary and, in the end, genuinely tragic. If you liked the recent series Orphan Black, know that this is from the same writer/director team of Karen Walton and John Fawcett.

So, there it is, enjoy your Halloween in your own way, avoiding, if you can, locally-meaningless rituals and any movies directed by James Wan. Boo!

Sunday, October 18, 2015


So, it's a ghost story.

It's more a story with ghosts.

Edith explains this more than once in the opening scenes of Crimson Peak. She's writing a novel. Already she's been told to put a romance in it and then she has decided to conceal her gender from publishers by drafting the book on a typewriter. And behind her, writer director Guillermo del Toro is telling us that we should cast off ideas that we're in for a horror movie. It's not a clumsy breach of the fourth wall as much as a kind of wink to anyone who has followed his career. So far he's made popcorn genre films in English and highly original dark fables in Spanish. Well, this is a dark fable in English.

There are indeed ghosts. They are fleshy but also ashen. Trails and dribbles of ectoplasm flow around them like the spectres in The Devil's Backbone. They are scary when you see them but they are also messengers. What's on show here is not horror but melodrama and it is played as a kind of spoken opera. The grand orchestral score for once in a contemporary film really has a welcome place. Edith's insistence on the relationship of ghosts to the story plays, in effect, like a theme in an overture.

The plot is a compound of gothic melodramas like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. Young and beautiful and Edith (a golden Mia Wasikovska) falls for the suavely dark Sir Thomas Thorne (the utterly dependable Tom Hiddleston) as he tours the Americas seeking investors for his clay mining machine. His sister, the arch and sinister Lady Lucille (a posh accented Jessica Chastain) slinks through the society crowd like a crimson serpent and descends a gothic stairwell like seven Mrs Danvers all at once. We're not talking new, here, as much as well expressed.

As a child, Edith was warned by the ghost of her mother to beware of Crimson Peak. And it is to a crimson peak (a natural phenomenon explained in the second act) that she is drawn. The mansion is slowly sinking into the blood red clay. The ceilings in some rooms have caved in; snow falls gently through the holes. Corridors give way to more corridors. The basement, accessed by an ancient lift, is filled with vats of bloodlike clay that could hide many bodies. And the cupboards and the recesses, the bathtubs and the entrances crawl and slide with the blood red dead.

Edith runs through this increasingly grave life decision like a gothic heroine. Well, she would if she weren't written as she has been. While she is under constant threat, at first from the ghosts and then from her sister in law and even her new husband she is more of an action heroine. And it is this that lifts Crimson Peak from being a beautiful but pointless melodrama to a Guillermo del Toro film.

Mia Wasikovska's bright performance goes from naivete to hard, canny survivalism as the full picture of where the real threats are coming from. Without this element, character and performance, the film would be pedestrian, if spectacularly so, on the same shelf as almost everything by Tim Burton after Ed Wood. Until this role solidifies it can be difficult to see where del Toro is going with the material but as blasting mini opera about life's mistakes it takes an honourable place beside the Spanish speaking masterworks. Perhaps a little softer than Pan's Labyrinth, which might well disappoint, but this could be the mellowing maturity brings and that might well spell more depth. We shall wait. We shall see.

Earth: notes about a short film

I don't review unreleased films here. However, a filmmaker acquaintance of mine got in touch a few months back to get some feedback for her new short film Earth. The writer/director is Tatiana Doroshenko. While I had problems with some of the dialogue I thought the visual storytelling was strong and said that in an email. More recently, she got in contact to say that she was taking it to Los Angeles for screenings there and asked if I would put those notes up here. As the notes were as much a personal encouragement as my impressions of the work they do not constitute a review. This is my edit:

First the top level, conceptual stuff. It works. Themes like grief and retribution without a vengeance plot could easily clash but here they converge without effort. Very good use of two purposes of photography that are opposites in intention but identical in power; both the secret of the atrocity and the exposed secrets of the tabloid rags relate father to son immediately and convey a sense of duty to the latter powerfully.

So much was established before a word was spoken. Evocative use of colour and mise en scene (the old man's apartment, the exteriors of the housing commission tower and the luxury apartment complex etc. Some dialogue scenes felt too expository and came off stilted for me (the confrontations between George and Eva). Contrasting with this, the dialogue between George and his boss warmed things up with humour. The monologue of George's mother was emotive, well performed and shot with a clear eye to the depth of its meaning.

I enjoyed the electronic score. The final stretch which laid down a slight drone so quiet it was almost imperceptible was exactly what was needed. A mainstream composer would have drowned it with a string section. The restraint shown with these elements reveals a clear respect for the material. That's why it didn't feel a second longer than it should have.

Good luck in L.A., Tatiana. Break a sprocket!