Tuesday, October 25, 2016

POPCORN, ROAST N VEGIES, CAVIAR: Three approaches to a Halloween Movie Night

Halloween is here again. No, I don't celebrate it, either, but the opportunity to get together with friends and watch some scary movies always appeals and if there's a designated date for that then it's this one. I've listed a few titles below but really this is all about the approach, knowing what you want and allowing for that to fly out the window (except for the last one). The night's for enjoyment, remembering there are all sorts of interpretations you can slug on to that term.

The line before this shot really is: "she's behind you."
This one's the most fun. It's also the hardest one to get right.

Large crowds are restless crowds.  You need fun food and easy drinks. But fun doesn't mean stupid. Don't rely on unintentional humour. You might like the idea of everyone chortling over Bela Lugosi overacting or a goofy effect from the 80s but, boy, does that shit get old fast. I personally think it's wasteful and insulting to your guests trying this on. (On the other hand, if you wanted your friends to star in a found-footage sci-horror movie of how robotic they sound as they start laughing at every line of dialogue and scene change get your DLSR out and shoot from the screen.)

No, you need to think design. The films of James Wan and those like him work best here. They are offered seriously and deliver all the scares you can eat. They offer no emotional engagement with the characters and only the most rudimentary narrative construction before the cattle prod effect kicks in and the jolts start happening every five or so minutes. You can't invest in them and their stories don't hold up and, out of context, they fail against classic horror cinema. But they are no more designed for critical analysis than sharks are designed for triathlons. You start them, shove in the popcorn, talk, yell, daydream about anything, gossip, and scream every five minutes.  Start with titles like The Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister, or Paranormal Activity (though the first one's pretty good) and pick anything from part one to infinity.

But just like the fun food on the coffee table too much of this gets bloating and sickly and you will need some relief now and then.

Unfriended: It's a gimmick and knows it and it cares not. A Skype party goes wrong and wronger still. There are real cultural issues here but they happen at the same time as you yell, along with the characters:"It's behind you!" Brilliant, dumb and fun all at once.

Rec: Short and gets pacy quickly. A found footage festival of infected zombies in a quarantined apartment block in Barcelona.Yes, the subtitles might be a drag for some but, really, they are only there for a few plot developments. It's not hard to get the point of this one.

Halloween: Huh? But isn't this a classic, why is it in this section? Because it was made to make people tense and scared and then provide relief at perfectly timed intervals. It's also the story of a girl finding her strength against a terrifying threat. And it's still effective.

Sean of the Dead: One of the few horror comedies that fulfils both genres.

The Host: Great pacy monster movie with more than a little social commentary and a knowing eye to family dynamics. Still works a treat.

Young Frankenstein: One of the few horror spoofs that keeps on giving. Put it on early and leave the cattle-prod boo-fests till later. You will have set the mood and kept it while appearing to have intensified the fare.

Pontypool. Listen and you shall hear.
This is the most balanced option. That said, it still requires some serious planning. What's happening with this is that you are curating a celebration of horror cinema for people who aren't fans of the genre. The thought of turning the mild mannered Niles or over-talkative Shay into crumbling pillars of salt with the likes of Martyrs or Cannibal Holocaust might well stretch your face into a rigid grin but if you're doing it properly you might win a few converts with a good blend of warm convention and real art.

Now, you know that Niles considers himself a bit of an Oscar Wilde even though no one else does and he's likely to start finding things to deride in the movies you have chosen. Shay will light up at the connective cues and start laughing along. Well, keep your Assyrian sacrifice dagger in the pool room and remember that this is a social occasion as well as an opportunity for outreach. Roll with it enough to show that you're really not Hannibal Lecter but maybe also take the curation side of it seriously enough to talk about why the movies are important. Did they defy the moral code of their times? Is there a production quirk worth noting? Is there something they can look out for and feel invited to participate in? Yeah, sure they can giggle at some of the acting but have a look at what's happening with this peripheral character. Show your love of the things and serve them up on the chipped plates that you won't miss. This is about the food and the sharing.

What you choose here will be personal (though maybe leave out Martyrs or Cannibal Holocaust for different occasions) but here are some that always work for me when making this approach.

The Haunting: Robert Wise's expert adaptation of Shirley Jackson's chiller combines strong characterisation, snappy dialogue, epoch-influencing art direction and an insistence on tragedy to drive the scares (which are few but still chilling).

Videodrome: David Cronenberg's accurate vision of the future of media remains my favourite of his works. The cold sci-fi concepts are warmed up by James Woods' career-best performance and rock star Debbie Harry's air of having lived her edgy character's life before anyone yelled "Action!"

It Follows: Less something to talk over than with as the issues it raises can provoke while playing like a classic dread fest (is it a creature feature, an evolved slasher, a supernatural thriller?) Real themes and real scares (and no cattle prodding, either, so real tension)

Night of the Living Dead: Great classic of shoestring cinema, this never quite gets old because it's so muscular in its execution and relentless in its theme. Nothing is really old timey about it beyond a few things like the news broadcasts. It's played so vigorously that you probably won't have time to rag it. Just watch.

In fact, the really important innovation writer/director Romero made in the thinking has seen this film used as the basis for every major zombie movie after it, from its own sequels right up to The Walking Dead. Find out what that is and you will have sold a viewing to the most genre-resistant person there. Hint, it has to do with what he left out rather than what he put in.

Phase IV: Ants, but not giant ants. Just little ants that together can be a conquering force and agent of evolution. Thoughtful 70s sci-fi that keeps on thinking and delivers like a Cronenberg movie from its future. All that said, it's kept light enough to withstand industrial strength murmuring. If you can get Youtube going on the TV find the original ending and watch it after this. It's worth it.

Dellamorte Dellamore/Cemetery Man: Very funny yet grim tale of fatal recursion. Rupert Everet irresistable as a cemetery keeper who falls in love with an Anna Falchi whose multiple characters have a terrible habit of dying violently and then coming back for more.

Pontypool: You really do have to pay attention to the dialogue here as this one is all about language. The threat at its centre is the spoken word. It's a zombie movie. Let those two things sink in. The tension is well mounted and the performances are enjoyable. Once you've got it, it's a fun ride, though.

Under the Shadow. Oppression + imagination = terror!
This is the easiest to plan and the least fun. But it is the most engaging if you invite from the secret coteries and invite from the strongest of the curious. The numbers are small, the lights are low, it's warmed sake or icy vodka on the table with the best of anything you like. Talk is allowed but whispered below the dialogue. You're not at the Drive-In you're in the PRESENCE. Shut up and absorb. ... See what I mean about the fun? If you're inclined to loud in the crowd this approach will suck like a polar vortex. It's my favourite approach.

You can be as daring as you like, either challenging your guests to make it along to Inside or A Serbian Film, or you might want a night of quiet reverence for a mix of the well-thumbed and the mint fresh.

This is the horror-nerd cave and works best if each co-celebrant knocks bearing their own treasure. Could be a piece of old cheese from the 80s fermented with some mind-blowing philosophy between the latex syrup effects. Could be something involving a theme or depiction of something one of you genuinely fears which the company will help with. Could be something you just can't get out of your mind, old or new. Could be vintage splatter because you feel like talking about splatter. But that's the thing: if you bring something you will have to talk about it before we press play.

This is potentially infinite but here are some I'd think of :

Dark Water: This one spends its time wisely, building up why we should care about these characters and what's important to them before plunging them into the thick and breathless atmosphere and the horror that lurks within. If you've seen it before try it again without subtitles (if it's not in Japanese it isn't the real Dark Water). Keep it quiet, watch, absorb.

Excision: In the same neighbourhood as Ginger Snaps or Heathers (but at the scrappier end) Excision takes us on a tour of a teenager's psychosis. Pauline's fantasies are Matthew-Barney-quality challenges but her waking wit is worthy of Daria and the overall arc goes into a nasty place made of madness and despair.

The Woman in Black: If it stars Daniel Radcliffe send it back; that's a point-missing piece of garbage. The real one was made in the '80s and scripted by Nigel Kneale for TV. Simple means used to great effect. Genuinely chilling. Also, near impossible to find so the appearance of it will have a near-supernatural cache.

Kairo: Kyoshi Kurosawa's poem of loneliness in a life connected by bits, bytes and surrender. Glacially slow but ocean deep. The scares come from the bedrock of the story and strong atmosphere. You will absorb this through your pores and feel it long afterwards. Also known as Pulse but there's an American remake you need to avoid with that title. Check the case. If the names are Japanese you've got it right.

Martyrs: Rough and constantly violent until the second half which slows down but gets more disturbing. There is a point to it but, boy .....!

Eraserhead: My favourite film of all time. I've been lucky enough since the marvellous Criterion edition was released, to have shown this three times to people who had never seen it.

Under the Shadow (only at the Nova at the moment but also through itunes): a strong and clever updating of the Dark Water model shifted to find its own character constraints. Like Dark Water it remembers that horror is at its strongest and impactful when built on a bed of hardship or tragedy.

Fear Itself: A very clever essay on the relationship between horror cinema and its fans that will delight and compel at either end of the night. Uses fictionalised narration over brilliantly edited clips from horror or fear-based scenes both mainstream and obscure. Not too long and cheerfully unacademic.

Beyond the Black Rainbow: The makers of this one play down the philosophy involved, preferring to highlight the design and atmosphere but this goes beyond just looking like Kubrick or the stranger sci-fi from the 70s (like ZPG or THX 1138) and begins to act like it as well. If you like the futuristic elements of Rollerball but also the vibe of Farenheit 451 you'll dig this.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Tehran in the 1980s. The revolution has established a brutal theocracy and set back the cause of reform in Iran by about seven centuries. Except for the weaponry. Iran is at war with Iraq. As Shideh sits across from an education bureaucrat, learning that her days of student politics mean that she is indefinitely forbidden to pursue her medical study for the rest of her life. Through the window of the office a building explodes with a plume of black smoke in the distance. Both glance at it with unease rather than horror and finish the interview.

Shideh returns to her family in their apartment to find her husband Iraj, already a doctor, more fearful of the regime than supportive of her. His quiet attempt at placation - "maybe it's for the best" - brings an understandable fury out in Shideh. The already strained marriage is pushed further still by his being drafted. Their preschool daughter Dorsa is not coping with what she can clearly feel in the mood of the home. Iraj goes off to war with the thought that the aerial bombing by the Iraqis will soon turn into missile assaults which will carry no warning. Shideh and Dorsa settle in for a grinding year ahead.

During the next air raid mother and daughter hurry down into the basement with the other tenants and wait it out. Dorsa loses her doll. She has been speaking with some of the other kids and one, an orphan taken in by one of the other families, tells the little girl of the Djinn, a monstrous spirit that can possess anyone through taking something they cherish. Shideh chides her daughter for listening to nonsense and goes to warn the family housing the orphan of the stories he's spreading. The woman of the house (the landlord's wife) seems more likely to be spreading the stories as she is completely credulous. Oh, also, that orphan, he's mute. Shideh has some tough nightmares and throughout the next days of the first missile raids weird things start happening.

This is a story of stress and it reminded me most strongly of another, one of my favourite horror movies of all time, Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. Both films are centred around a mother and daughter pitted against a grey and unsympathetic world which has the power to place strain in the bond. Shideh's sense of imprisonment is palpable. When she and Dorsa flee the house after a horrific scene the soldiers are far more concerned about her lack of head covering. As she is berated by the senior cop at the station for walking around exposed, she sinks back into herself, covered in a supplied black chador, the rage in her show of resignation is unignorable. She just has to bite her lip so she can get back home and get rid of this thing that seems to have gestated in the emotional pressure surrounding them. If you've seen Dark Water you'll remember that the mother Yoshimi makes a point of donning or removing her shoes. It shows us something of her culture but also how tightly woven in she is. It's the same with the head covering. At points of crisis in Under the Shadow it occurs to us to feel anxious that Shideh doesn't forget her scarf.

Like Dark Water, the trouble between mother and daughter takes the gravity and the Djinn, when it begins to manifest (if it does), draws its power from that situation. The stakes raised by this mean that the scares have real weight and resonance. There is one in particular whose jolt finished with shivers consuming my neck and shoulders. It was born of expert tension and dread. We want to see but we can't look. And what do we see? Buy a ticket and witness how simple it is.

I'm steering clear of plot for this one as the situation that emerges is so dependent on the course of the tale and revealing even slight details could spoil it. Cattle prod movies like the Paranormal Activity sequels and anything by James Wan that deliver timed shocks to people who aren't paying that much attention can't really be spoiled as their identikit themeless plots all have the same conclusion. While you might find some familiar things in Under the Shadow you will care about its people. That's the difference.